Skip to content
Create a meaningful service for your loved one with Catholic Online Caskets

St. Thomas Christians

Free World Class Education
FREE Catholic Classes

An ancient body of Christians on the east and west coasts of India, claiming spiritual descent from the Apostle St. Thomas. The subject will be treated under the following heads:

I. Their early traditions and their connection with the Apostle St. Thomas
II. The Apostle's tomb at Mylapur
III. This upheld by the Edessan Church
IV. For their earliest period they possess no written but a traditional history
V. Record of these traditions embodied in a manuscript Statement dated 1604
VI. The Syrian merchant Thomas Cana arrives in Malabar, an important event in their history and the social benefits therefrom
VII. The arrival also of two pious brothers, church-builders
VIII. Ancient stone crosses and their inscriptions
IX. Their early prelates
X. Were these Christians infected with Nestorianism before 1599?
XI. Medieval travellers on the Thomas Christians
XII. Their two last Syrian bishops
XIII. Archbishop Menezes and the Synod of Diamper
XIV. Their first three Jesuit bishops
XV. The Carmelite Period
XVI. Two Latin Vicars Apostolic
XVII. Divided into three vicariates with native bishops

I. Their early traditions and their connection with the Apostle St. Thomas

Interest in the history of these Christians arises from more than one feature. Their ancient descent at once attracts attention. Theophilus (surnamed the Indian) -- an Arian, sent by Emperor Constantius (about 354) on a mission to Arabia Felix and Abyssinia -- is one of the earliest, if not the first, who draws our attention to them. He had been sent when very young a hostage a Divoeis , by the inhabitants of the Maldives, to the Romans in the reign of Constantine the Great. His travels are recorded by Philostorgius, an Arian Greek Church historian, who relates that Theophilus, after fulfilling his mission to the Homerites, sailed to his island home. Thence he visited other parts of India, reforming many things -- for the Christians of the place heard the reading of the Gospel in a sitting, etc. This reference to a body of Christians with church, priest, liturgy, in the immediate vicinity of the Maldives, can only apply to a Christian Church and faithful on the adjacent coast of India, and not to Ceylon, which was well known even then under its own designation, Taprobane. The people referred to were the Christians known as a body who had their liturgy in the Syriac language and inhabited the west coast of India, i.e. Malabar. This Church is next mentioned and located by Cosmas Indicopleustes (about 535) "in Male (Malabar) where the pepper grows"; and he adds that the Christians of Ceylon, whom he specifies as Persians, and "those of Malabar " (the latter he leaves unspecified, so they must have been natives of the country) had a bishop residing at Caliana (Kalyan), ordained in Persia, and one likewise on the island of Socotra.

II. The Apostle's tomb at Mylapur

St. Gregory of Tours (Glor. Mart.), before 590, reports that Theodore, a pilgrim who had gone to Gaul, told him that in that part of India where the corpus (bones) of Thomas the Apostle had first rested (Mylapur on the east or the Coromandel Coast of India ) there stood a monastery and a church of striking dimensions and elaboratedly adorned, adding: "After a long interval of time these remains had been removed thence to the city of Edessa." The location of the first tomb of the Apostle in India is proof both of his martyrdom and of its Apostolate in India. The evidence of Theodore is that of an eyewitness who had visited both tombs -- the first in India, while the second was at Edessa. The primitive Christians, therefore, found on both coasts, east and west, witness to and locate the tomb at Mylapur, "St. Thomas", a little to the south of Madras ; no other place in India lays any claim to possess the tomb, nor does any other country. On these facts is based their claim to be known as St. Thomas Christians.

III. This upheld by the Edessan Church

Further proof may be adduced to justify this claim. A Syrian ecclesiastical calender of an early date confirms the above. In the quotation given below two points are to be noted which support its antiquity -- the fact of the name given to Edessa and the fact the memory of the translation of the Apostle's relics was so fresh to the writer that the name of the individual who had brought them was yet remembered. The entry reads: "3 July, St. Thomas who was pierced with a lance in India. His body is at Urhai [the ancient name of Edessa ] having been brought there by the merchant Khabin. A great festival." It is only natural to expect that we should receive from Edessa first-hand evidence of the removal of the relics to that city; and we are not disappointed, for St. Ephraem, the great doctor of the Syrian Church, has left us ample details in his writings. Ephraem came to Edessa on the surrender of Nisibis to the Persians, and he lived there from 363 to 373, when he died. This proof is found mostly in his rhythmical compositions. In the forty-second of his "Carmina Nisibina" he tells us the Apostle was put to death in India, and that his remains were subsequently buried in Edessa, brought there by a merchant. But his name is never given; at that date the name had dropped out of popular memory. The same is repeated in varying form in several of his hymns edited by Lamy (Ephr. Hymni et Sermones, IV). "It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes. His grateful dawn dispelled India's painful darkness. It was his mission to espouse India to the One-Begotten. The merchant is blessed for having so great a treasure. Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the greatest pearl India could yield. Thomas works miracles in India, and at Edessa Thomas is destined to baptize peoples perverse and steeped in darkness, and that in the land of India."

Free Online Catholic Classes for Anyone, Anywhere - Click Here

IV. For their earliest period they possess no written but a traditional history

These Christians have no written records of the incidents of their social life from the time of their conversion down to the arrival of the Portuguese on the coast, just as India had no history until the arrival of the Mohammedans.

V. Record of these traditions embodied in a manuscript Statement dated 1604

Fortunately the British Museum has a large collection consisting of several folio volumes containing manuscripts, letters, reports, etc., of Jesuit missions in India and elsewhere; among these in additional volume 9853, beginning with the leaf 86 in pencil and 525 in ink, there is a "Report" on the "Serra" (the name by which the Portuguese designated Malabar ), written in Portuguese by a Jesuit missionary, bearing the date 1604 but not signed by the writer; there is evidence that this "Report" was known to F. de Souza, author of the "Oriente Conquistado", and utilized by him. The writer has carefully put together the traditional record of these Christians ; the document is yet unpublished, hence its importance. Extracts from the same, covering what can be said of the early part of this history, will offer the best guarantee that can be offered. The writer of the "Report" distinctly informs us that these Christians had no written records of ancient history, but relied entirely on traditions handed down by their elders, and to these they were most tenaciously attached.

Of their earliest period tradition records that after the death of the Apostle his disciples remained faithful for a long time, the Faith was propagated with great zeal, and the Church increased considerably. But later, wars and famine supervening, the St. Thomas Christians of Mylapur got scattered and sought refuge elsewhere, and many of them returned to paganism. The Christians, however, who were on the Cochin side, fared better than the former, spreading from Coulac (Quilon) to Palur (Paleur), a village in the north of Malabar. These had fared better, as they lived under native princes who rarely interfered with their Faith, and they probably never suffered real persecution such as befell their brethren on the other coast; besides, one of the paramount rajahs of Malabar, Cheruman Perumal, had conferred on them a civil status. The common tradition in the country holds that from the time of the Apostle seven churches were erected in different parts of the country, besides the one which the Apostle himself had erected at Mylapur. This tradition is most tenaciously held and is confirmed by the "Report". It further asserts that the Apostle Thomas, after preaching to the inhabitants of the Island of Socotra and establishing there a Christian community, had come over to Malabar and landed at the ancient port of Cranganore. They hold that after preaching in Malabar the Apostle went over to Mylapur on the Coromandel Coast; this is practicable through any of the many paths across the dividing mountain ranges which were well known and much frequented in olden times. The Socotrians had yet retained their Faith when in 1542 St. Francis visited them on his way to India. In a letter of 18 September of the same year, addressed to the Society at Rome, he has left an interesting account of the degenerate state of the Christians he found there, who were Nestorians. He also tells us they render special honours to the Apostle St. Thomas, claiming to be descendants of the Christians begotten to Jesus Christ by that Apostle. By 1680 when the Carmelite Vincenzo Maria di Santa Catarina landed there he found Christanity quite extinct, only faint traces yet lingering. The extinction of this primitive Christanity is due to the oppression of the Arabs, who now form the main population of the island, and to the scandelous neglect of the Nestorian Patriarchs who in former times were wont to supply the bishop and clergy for the island. When St. Francis visited the island a Nestorian priest was still in charge.

VI. The Syrian merchant Thomas Cana arrives in Malabar

There is one incident of the long period of isolation of the St. Thomas Christians from the rest of the Christian world which they are never tired of relating, and it is one of considerable importance to them for the civil status it conferred and secured to them in the country. This is the narrative of the arrival of a Syrian merchant on their shores, a certain Mar Thoma Cana -- the Portuguese have named him Cananeo and styled him an Armenian, which he was not. He arrived by ship on the coast and entered the port of Cranganore. The King of Malabar, Cheruman Perumal, was in the vicinity, and receiving information of his arrival sent for him and admitted him to his presence. Thomas was a wealthy merchant who had probably come to trade; the King took a liking to this man, and when he expressed a wish to acquire land and make a settlement the King readily acceded to his request and let him purchase land, then unoccupied, at Cranganore. Under the king's orders Thomas soon collected a number of Christians from the surrounding country, which enabled him to start a town on the ground marked out for his occupation. He is said to have collected seventy-two Christian families (this is the traditional number always mentioned ) and to have installed them in as many separate houses erected for them; attach to each dwelling was a sufficient piece of land for vegetable cultivation for the support of the family as is the custom of the country. He also erected a dwelling for himself and eventually a church. The authorization to possess the land and dwellings erected was granted to Thomas by a deed of paramount Lord and Rajah of Malabar, Cheruman Perumal, said to have been the last of the line, the country having been subsequently divided among his feudatories. (The details given above as well as what follows of the copper plate grant are taken from the "Report".) The same accord also speak of several privileges and honours by the king to Thomas himself, his descendants, and to the Thomas Christians, by which the latter community obtained status above the lower classes, and which made them equal to the Nayars, the middle class in the country.

The deed read as follows:

May Cocurangon [personal name of the king] be prosperous, enjoy a long life and live 100,000 years, divine servant of the gods, strong, true, just, full of deeds, reasonable, powerful over the whole earth, happy,conquering, glorious, rightly prosperous in the service of the gods, in Malabar, in the city of the Mahadeva [the great idol of the temple in the vicinity of Cranganore] reigning in the year of Mercury on the seventh day [Portuguese text: elle no tepo de Mercurio de feu to no dia, etc.] of the mouth of March before the full moon the same king Cocurangon being in Carnallur there landed Thomas Cana, a chief man who arrived in a ship wishing to see the farthest parts of the East. And some men seeing how he arrived informed the king. The king himself came and saw and sent for the chief man Thomas, and he disembarked and came before the king, who spoke graciously to him. To honour him he gave him his name, styling him Cocurangon Cana, and he went to rest in his place, and the king gave him the city of Mogoderpatanam, (Cranganore) for ever. And the same king being in his great prosperity went one day to hunt in the forest, and he hastily sent for Thomas, who came and stood before the king in a propitious hour, and the king consulted the astrologer. And afterwards the king spoke to Thomas that he should build a town in that forest, and he made reverence and answered the king: I require this forest for myself', and the king granted it to him for ever. And forthwith another day he cleared the forest and he cast his eyes upon it in the same year on the eleventh of April, and in a propetious time gave it to Thomas for a heritage in the name of the king, who laid the first stone of the church and the house of Thomas Cana, and he built there a town for all, and entered the church and prayed there on the same day. After these things Thomas himself went to the feet of the king and offered his gifts, and this he asked the king to give that land to him and his descendants; and he measured out two hundred and sixty-four elephant cubits and gave them to Thomas and his descendants for ever, and jointly sixty-two houses which immediately erected there, and gardens with their enclosures and paths and boundaries and inner yards. And he granted seven kinds of musical instruments and all honours and the right of travelling in a palanquin, and he conferred on him dignity and the privilege of spreading carpets on the ground and the use of sandals, and to erect a pavilion at his gate and ride on elephants, and also granted five taxes to Thomas and his companions, both men and women, for all his relations and to the followers of hislaw for ever.

The said king gave his name and these princes witnessed it...

Then follow the names of eight witnesses, and a note is added by the Portuguese translator that this is the document by which the Emperor of all Malabar gave the land of Cranganore to Thomas Cana and also to Christians of St. Thomas. This document, transcribed from the manuscript "Report", has been carefully translated into English, as it forms the "Great Charter" of the St. Thomas Christians. The "Report" adds: "and because at that time they reckoned the era in cycles of twelve years according to the course, therefore they say in the Olla [Malayalam term for a document written on palm leaf] that the said settlement was founded in the year of the mercury... that mode of reckoning is totally forgotten, for the last seven hundred and seventy-nine years in all this Malabar time has been reckoned by the Quilon era. However, since the said Perumal, as we have said above, died more than a thousand and two hundred years, it follows: that same number of years have elapsed since the Church and Christians were established at Cranganore." The writer of the "Report" had previously stated "it is one thousand and two hundred and fifty and eight years since Perumal, as we have said above, died on the first of March". Deducing the date of the "Report" this would give A.D. 346 for his death. Diego de Couto ( Decada XII ), quoting the above grant in full, says that the Syrian Christians fix A.D. 811 as corresponding to the date borne on the grant; the first is far too early, and the second is an approximately probable date. The "Report" informs us that the copper plates on which this deed or grant was inscribed were taken away to Portugal by Franciscan Fathers, who left behind a translation of the same. It is known that the Syrian Bishop of Malabar, Mar Jacob, had deposited with the Factor of Cochin all the Syrian copper grants for safe custody; providing however that when necessary access could be had to the same. Gouvea at p. 4 of his "Jornada" says that after having remained there for some long time they could not be found and were lost through some carelessness; de Couto asserts the same in the passage quoted above and also elsewhere. In 1806 at the suggestion of Rev. Claude Buchanan, Colonel Macauly, the British resident, ordered a careful search for them and they turned up in the record room of Cochin town. The tables then contained (1) the grant to Irani Cortton of Cranganore, and (2) the set of plates of the grant to Maruvan Sopi Iso of Quilon, but those of the grant to Thomas Cana were not among them; had they not been removed they would have been found with other plates; this confirms the statement of the writer of the "Report" that they had been taken to Portugal. From what is stated in the royal deed to Thomas Cana it may be taken for granted that the latter brought with him a small colony of Syrians from Mesopotamia, for the privileges conceded include his companions, both men and women, and all his relations.

VII. The arrival also of two pious brothers, church-builders

Besides the arrival of Thomas Cana and his colony, by which the early Christians benefited considerably, the "Report" also records the arrival on this coast of two individuals named Soper Iso and Prodho; they are said to have been brothers and are supposed to have been Syrians. The "Report" gives the following details; they came to possess a promonotory opposite Paliport on the north side, which is called Maliankara, and they entered the port with a large load of timber to build a church; and in the Chaldean books of this Serra there is no mention of them, except that they were brothers, came to Quilon, built a church there, and worked some miracles. After death they were buried in the church they had erected; it is said that they had built other smaller churches in the country; they were regarded as pious men and were later called saints, their own church was eventually dedicated to them as well as others in the country. Archbishop Alexis Menezes afterwards changed the dedication of these churches to other saints in the Roman calender. There is one important item that the "Report" has preserved: "the said brothers built the church of Quilon in the hundredth year after the foundation of Quilon." (This era commences from 25 August, A.D. 825, and the date will thus be A.D. 925). The second of the aforesaid copper-plates mention Meruvan Sober Iso, one of the above brothers. The "Report" also makes mention of pilgims coming from Mesopotamia to visit the shrine of the Apostle at Mylapur; some of these at times would settle there and others in Malabar. It may be stated here that the Syrians of Malabar are as a body natives of the land by descent, and the Syriac trait in them is that of their liturgy, which is in the Syrian language. They call themselves Syrians by way of distinction from other body of Christians on the coast, who belong to the Latin Rite. The honorific appellation bestowed upon them by the rulers of the country is that of Mapla , which signifies great son or child, and they were commonly so called by the people; this appellation also have been given to the descendants of Arabs in the country; the St. Thomas Christians now prefer to be called Nasrani (Nazarenes), the designation given by the Mohammedans to all Christians.

FREE Face Mask & Shipping on order $60+

VIII. Ancient stone crosses and their inscriptions

There are certain stone crosses of ancient date in southern India, bearing inscriptions in Pahlavi letters. Extraordinary legends have been spread about them in some parts of Europe ; the present writer was shown an engraving purporting to reproduce one of them, with a legend of the Apostolate and martyrdom of St. Thomas, a reproduction of the inscription on his crosses. This was attached to the calender of one of the dioceses of France, and this writer was asked if it were authentic.

To prevent the spreading of such reports it may be useful to state here of these crosses one is in the Church of Mount St. Thomas, Mylapur, discovered in 1547 after the arrival of the Portuguese in India ; other is in the church of Kottayam, Malabar. Both are of Nestorian origin, are engraved as a bas-relief on the flat stone with ornamental decorations around the cross, and bear an inscription. The inscription has been variously read. Dr. Burnell, an Indian antiquary, says that both crosses bear the same inscription, and offer the following reading: "In punishment by the cross was the suffering of this one, Who is the true Christ, God above and Guide ever pure." These crosses bear some resemblance to the Syro-Chinese Nestorian monument discovered in 1625 at Singan-fu, an ancient capital of China but erected in 781 and commemorating the arrival in China of Chaldean Nestorian missionaries in 636.

IX. Their early prelates

Of the prelates who governed the Church in India after the Apostle's death very little is known; that little is collected and reproduced here. John the Persian, who was present at the Council of Nice (325), is the first known to history claiming the title. In his signature to the degrees of the Council he styles himself; John the Persian [presiding] over the churches in all Persia and Great India. The designation implies that he was the [ primate ] Metropolitan of Persia and also the Bishop of Great India. As metropolitan and the chief bishop of the East he may have represented at the council the catholics of Seleucia. His control of the Church in India could only have been exercised by his sending priests under his juridiction to minister to those Christians. It is not known at what date India first commenced to have resident bishops ; but between the years 530-35 Cosmas Indicopleustes in his "topographia" informs us of the presence of a bishop residing in Caliana, the modern Kalyan at a short distance from Bombay. That residence was, in all probability, chosen because it was then the chief port of commerce on the west coast of India, and had easy access and communication with Persia. We know later of a contention which took place between Jesuab of Adiabene the Nestorian Patriarch and Simeon of Ravardshir, the Metropolitan of Persia, who had left India unprovided with bishops for a long period. The Patriarch reproached him severely for this gross neglect. We may take it that up to the period 650-60 the bishops sent to India, as Cosmas has said, were consecrated in Persia, but after this gross neglect the patriarch reserved to himself the choice and consecration of the prelates he sent out to India, and this practice was continued till the arrival of the Portuguese on the coast in 1504.

We ask you, humbly: don't scroll away.

Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you.

Help Now >

Le Quien places the two brothers Soper Iso and Prodho on the list of bishops of India, but Indian tradition gives it no support, and in this the British Museum Manuscript Report and Gouvea (Jornada, p. 5) concur. The brothers were known as church-builders, and were reputed to be holy men. Moreover, to include Thomas Cana in the lists of bishops is preposterous on the face of the evidence of the copper-plate grant. The "Report" mentions a long period when there was neither bishop nor priest surviving in the land, for they had all died out; the only clerical survival was a deacon far advanced in age. The ignorant Christians, finding themselves without prelates, made him say Mass and even ordain others, but as soon as prelates came from Babylon they put a stop to this disorder. The next authentic information we have on this head comes from the Vatican Library and has been published by Assemani (Bibli. Or., III, 589). It consists of a statement concerning two Nestorian bishops and their companions and a letter the former written in Syriac to the Patriarch annoncing their arrival, dated 1504; there is a translation in Latin added to the documents. In 1490 the Christians of Malabar dispatched three messengers to ask the Nestorian Patriarch to send out bishops ; one died on the journey, the other two presented themselves before the Patriarch and delivered their message; two monks were selected and the Patriach consecrated them bishops, assigning to one the name of Thomas and to the other that of John. The two bishops started on their journey to India accompanied by the two messengers. On their arrival they were received with great joy by the people, and the bishops commenced consecrating altars and ordaining a large number of priests "as they had been for a long time deprived of bishops ". One of them, John, remained in India, while the other Thomas, accompanied by Joseph, one of the messengers, returned to Mesopotamia, taking with them the offerings collected for the patriarch. Joseph returned to India in 1493, but Thomas remained in Mesopotamia.

After about ten years, when the next patriarch ordained three other bishops for India, Thomas went back with them. These new bishops were also chosen from the monks, one was named Jaballa (he was the metropolitan ), the second was named Denha, and the third jacob. These four bishops took ship from Ormus and landed at Kananur; they found there some twenty Portuguese who had recently arrived and presented themselves to them, said they were Christians, explained their condition and rank, and were kindly treated. Of this large number of bishops, only one remained to work, and this was Mar Jacob ; the other three, including the metropolitan, after a short time returned to their country. Gouvea adds that they were either dissatisfied with their charge or did not like the country. The Portuguese writers mention only two bishops as residents, John who had come before their arrival in India and Mar Jacob. Nothing further is known of John but Jacob lived in the country till his death. St. Francis Xavier makes a very pretty elogium of him in a letter written to King John III of Portugal on 26 January, 1549. "Mar Jacob [or Jacome Abuna, as St. Francis styles him] for forty-five years has served God and your Highness in these parts, a very old, a virtuous, and a holy man, and at the same time unnoticed by your Highness and by almost all in India. God rewards him . . . He is noticed only by the Fathers of St. Francis, and they take so good care of him that nothing more is wanted . . . He has laboured much among the Christians of St. Thomas, and now in his old age he is very obedient to the customs of the Holy Mother Church of Rome." This elogium of St. Francis sums up his career for the forty-five years he worked in Malabar (1504-49). He came out as a Nestorian, remained such during his early years, but gradually as he came in touch with the Catholic missionaries he allowed them to preach in his churches and to instruct his people; in his old age he left Cranganore and went to live in the Franciscan convent at Cochin and there he died in 1549. There remain two others -- the last of the Mesopotamian prelates who presided over these Christians -- Mar Joseph and Mar Abraham ; their career will be detailed further on.

X. Were these Christians infected with Nestorianism before 1599?

When Cosmas gave us the information of the existence of a Christian community in "Male (Malabar) where the pepper is grown" he also supplied us with additional details: that they have a bishop residing at Kalyan; that in Taprobano [ Ceylon ] "an island of interior India where the Indian Ocean is situated" there is a " Christian Church with clergy and the faithful; similarly in the island of Dioscordis [Socotra] in the same Indian Ocean." Then he enumerates the churches in Arabia Felix, Bactria, and among the Huns; and all these churches are by him represented to be controlled by the Metropolitan of Persia. Now at that time the holder of this dignity was Patrick, the tutor, as Assemani designates him, of Thomas of Edessa, a prominent Nestorian to which sect Cosmas also belonged; hence his interest in supplying all these details. The bishop and clergy whom the Metropolitan, Patrick, would send out to all the above-mentioned places and churches would and must have been undoubtedly infected with one and the same heresy. Hence it is quite safe to conclude that at the time of the visit of Cosmas to India (A.D. 530-35) all these churches, as also the Church in India, were holding the Nestorian doctrine of their bishops and priests. Nor should this historical fact cause surprise when we take into consideration the opportunities, the bold attitude and violent measures adopted by the promoters of this heresy after expulsion from the Roman Empire. When the Emperor Zeno ordered Cyrus, Bishop of Edessa, to purge his diocese of that heresy (A.D. 489), the Nestorians were forced to seek refuge across the Roman boundary into Persia. Among them were the banished professors and students of the Persian School of Edessa, the centre of the Nestorian error, and they found refuge and protection with Barsumas, Metropolitan of Nisibis, himself a fanatical adherent of Nestorius. Barsumas at this time also held from the Persian king the office of governor of the frontier.

With the influence Barsumas possessed at court it was an easy thing for him to make the king, already so disposed, believe that the actual bishops holding sees in his territory were friendly to his enemies, the Romans, and that it would be better to replace them by men he knew who would owe allegiance only to the Persian monarch. This stratagem rapidly succeeded in capturing most of those sees; and the movement became so strong that, although Barsumas predeceased Acka (Acacius), the occupant of the chief see of Seleucia, a Catholic, yet a Nestorian was selected to succeed the latter (A.D. 496). Thus within the short space of seven years the banished heresy sat mistress on the throne of Seleucia, in a position to force every existing see eastward of the Roman Empire to embrace the heresy and to secure its permanence. Thus the Indian Church suffered the same fate which befell the Churches of Persia, and by 530-35 we find that she has a Nestorian prelate consecrated in Persia and presiding at Kalyan over her future destiny. If further proof is wanted to uphold the above finding, we offer the following historical facts of the control exercised by the Nestorian Patriarch. In 650-60, as above stated, Jesuab of Adiabene claimed authority over India and reproached Simeon of Revardshir, the Metropolitan of Persia, for not having sent bishops to India and so deprived that Church of the succession of her ministry. In 714-28 Saliba Zacha, another Nestorian Patriarch, raised the see of India to metropolitan rank. Again in 857 Theodosius, another Nestorian Patriarch, included the See of India among the exempted which, owing to distance from the patriarchal see, should in future send letters of communion but once in six years. This ruling was subsequently incorporated in a synodal canon.

If we look to the general tradition of the St. Thomas Christians it will be found that all their prelates came from Babylon, the ancient residence as they say, of the Patriarch or Catholicos of the East. It is further known and acknowledged by them that whenever they remained deprived of a bishop for a long time, they used to send messengers to that Patriarchate asking that bishops be sent out to them. Sufficient proof of this practice has been given above when discussing the arrival of four bishops in 1504. The Holy See was fully aware that the Malabar Christians were under the control of the Nestorian Patriarch. When Julius III gave Sulaka his Bull of nomination as the Catholic Chaldean patriarch, he distinctly laid down the same extent of jurisdiction which had been claimed and controlled by his late Nestorian predecessor; hence in the last clause it is distinctly laid down: "In Sin Massin et Calicuth et tota India." It becomes necessary to fix this historical truth clearly, because some in Malabar deny this historical fact. They would wish people to believe that all the Portuguese missionaries, bishops, priests, and writers were completely mistaken when they styled them Nestorians in belief, and because of this false report all subsequent writers continued to call them Nestorians. The reader who has gone through the statement of facts above related must be conscious that such an attempt at distorting or boldly denying public facts is utterly hopeless. They maintain, in support of their false view, that there always had been a small body among the Chaldeans in Mesopotamia who remained attached to the true Faith, and from them they received their bishops. This plea is historically false, for the bishops they received all came to them from the Nestorians, and as to the hypothesis of the existence during all these centuries back of a Catholic party among the Nestorian Chaldeans, it is too absurd to be discussed. It was only after the conversion of Sulaka in 1552 that the Chaldeans in part returned to the unity of faith. The truth is that the Malabar Church remained from A.D. 496 up till then in heresy.

XI. Medieval travellers on the Thomas Christians

During the centuries that these Christians were isolated from the rest of Christendom, their sole intercourse was limited to Mesopotamia, whence the Nestorian Patriarch would from time to time supply them with prelates. But from the close of the thirteenth century Western travellers, chiefly missionaries sent out by the popes, sent to the West occasional news of their existence. Some of these it will be useful to reproduce here. The first who informed the world of the existence of these St. Thomas Christians was Friar John of Monte Corvino. After he had spent several years as a missionary in Persia and adjoining countries, he proceeded to China, passing through the Indian ports between the years 1292 and 1294. He tells us in a letter written from Cambales (Peking) in 1305 that he had remained thirteen months in that part of India where the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle stood (Mylapore); he also baptized in different places about one hundred persons. In the same letter he says that there were in Malabar a few Jews and Christians, but they were of little worth; he also says that "the inhabitants persecute much the Christians." (Yule, "Cathay and the Way Thither," I)

The next visitor is Marco Polo, who on his return from China (c. 1293) touched the India of St. Thomas. Of his tomb he tells us: "The body Of Messer Saint Thomas the Apostle lies in the province of Malabar, at a certain little town having no great population; 'tis a place where few traders go . . . Both Christians and Saracens however greatly frequent it in pilgrimage, for the Saracens also hold the Saint in great reverence....The Christians who go in pilgrimage take some of the earth from the place where the Saint was killed and give a portion thereof to any who is sick, and by the power of God and of St. Thomas the sick man is incontinently cured. . . . The Christians," he resumes later, "who have charge of the church have a great number of Indian nut trees [coconuts], and thereby get their living" (Marco Polo, Yule's, 2nd edit., II, 338). Friar Jordan, a Dominican, came to India as a missionary in 1321; he then had as companions four Franciscan friars, but on approaching India he had parted from them to make diversion; in the meanwhile the vessel conveying the others was by stress of weather compelled to enter Tana, a port on the west coast, where the Khasi of the place put them to death as they would not embrace Islam ; the feast of Blessed Thomas of Tolentino and his companions is fixed on 6 April in the "Martyrologium Romanum". Later Jordanus, hearing what had happened, rescued their bodies and gave them burial. He must then have gone back to Europe, for he is next heard of in France in 1330, when Pope John XXII consecrated him at Avignon Bishop of Quilon. He left for the East the same year with two letters from the pope, one to the chief of the Christians of Quilon and the other to the Christians at Molephatam, a town on the Gulf of Manaar. In the first the pope beseeches "that divisions cease and clouds of error stain not the brightness of faith of all generated by the waters of baptism. . . and that the phantom of schism and wilful blindness of unsullied faith darken not the vision of those who believe in Christ and adore His name."

Much the same in other words is repeated in the second letter, and they are urged to unity with the Holy Catholic Roman Church . The pope recommends the bishop to the kindness of the people, and thanks them for that shown to the friars who are working among them. All we know is that Bishop Jordanus was sent out with these letters, but nothing further is heard of him. He wrote a small book named "Mirabilia", edited by Col. A. Yule for the Hakluyt Society, published in 1863 (see also "Cathay", I, 184). The next visitor is Blessed Oderic of Pordenone, who about 1324-25 landed at Tana, recovered the bodies of the four friars, Thomas and his companions who had there suffered martyrdom, and conveyed them to China. On his way he halted at Quilon, which he calls Palumbum ; thence he took passage on a Chinese junk for a certain city called Zayton in China. He mentions the Christians at Quilon, and that at Mylapore there were fourteen houses of Nestorians ("Cathay", I, 57). A few years later Giovanni de Marignolli, the papal delegate to China, arrived at Quilon. He stayed there at a church dedicated to St. George, belonging to the Latin Rite, and he adorned it with fine paintings and taught there the Holy Law. After dwelling there for upwards of a year he sailed to visit the shrine of the Apostle ; he calls the town Mirapolis . After describing the culture of pepper on the coast he adds: "the pepper does not grow in forests but in gardens prepared for the purpose; nor are the Saracens the proprietors, but the Christians of St. Thomas, and these are the masters of the public weighing-office" [customs office]. Before leaving Quilon he erected a monument to commemorate his visit, and this was a marble pillar with a stone cross on it, intended to last, as he says, till the world's end. "It had the pope's arms" he says, "and my own engraved on it, with an inscription both in Indian and Latin characters. I consecrated and

Never Miss any Updates!

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers.

Catholic Online Logo

Copyright 2021 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2021 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.

Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!