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The Nasrani Menorah also known as the Mar Thoma sliba

Malankara Church of India is the Christian church believed to be started by St.Thomas (Malayalam: വി. തോമാശ്ലീഹാ), the apostle of Jesus Christ. Maliankara, a place near Muziris, (now known as Pattanam,[1] near Cochin on the Malabar Coast), where Thomas the Apostle first landed in Kerala in 52 AD.[2] It was the headquarters of the Indian Christian Church from the 1st century AD. (Malankara is cognate of this name Maliankara) and hence the name Malankara (Malayalam: മലങ്കര) Church. It is also known as Church of Malabar or Malabar Church. Hence the Christians here are known as Malankara Nasranis , Saint Thomas Christians, Malabar Christians and Malankara Christians. The history of Christianity in India reportedly started 15 centuries before the arrival of European missionaries in India.[3]

All Christian churches in the area prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century, share this same cognomen and history.

Saint Thomas Christian tradition

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According to tradition, it was on a trading vessel plying between Alexandria and the Malabar coast that St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Kodungallur (കൊടുങ്ങല്ലൂര്‍)in 52 AD.[2] Modern developments in archaeology, anthropology, numismatics, toponymy, geography and trade route investigations have revealed evidence of the trading which forms the background to the St. Thomas tradition of Kerala.

The southern coast of the Indian subcontinent (hypothesized by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus to be the place mentioned as Ophir in the Old Testament) inevitably became a gateway from the Mediterranean world to Kerala. The people there traded in teak, ivory, spices and peacocks, and the area was endowed with a magnificent coastline with numerous ports from Mangalapuram to Kodungallur, also known as Cranganore.[4] In the ancient times it was called as Muziris in Latin and Muchiri in Malayalam.[5] The lure of spices attracted traders from the Middle East and Europe to the many trading ports - Ophir (Present Bepoor or Poovar), Muziris, Tyndis (near Alleppy), Nelcynda (Niranam) — long before the time of Christ. According to the first century annals of Pliny the Elder and the author of Periplus of the Erythraean sea, Muziris in Kerala could be reached in 40 days' time from the Egyptian coast purely depending on the South West Monsoon winds. The Sangam works Puranaooru and Akananooru have many lines which speak of the Roman vessels and the Roman gold that used to come to the Kerala ports of the great Chera kings in search of pepper and other spices, which had enormous demand in the West.

Saint Thomas the Apostle began preaching the Gospel to the already existing Jewish settlers in the Malabar coast and other local people of Aryan worships and Jains. The Apostle St. Thomas who arrived in Kerala in the 1st century, established contact with some priestly-class Hindus in Palayur and converted them to the Christian faith. The four main priestly-class families that converted are Pakalomattam, Sankarapuri, Kalliyankal and Kalli.

St. Thomas also established seven and half Christian communities or churches known as Ezharapallikal in Kerala. They are in Cranganore (ml:കൊടുങ്ങല്ലൂര്‍), Paravur (Kottakavu)(ml:കോട്ടക്കാവ്), Palayoor (ml:പാലയൂര്‍), Kokkamangalam (ml;കോതമംഗലം), Niranam (ml:നിരണം ), Chayal (Nilackal) (ml:നിലായ്ക്കല്‍) and Kollam (Quilon) (ml:കൊല്ലം ).[6]

Maliankara was the headquarters of the Church of Malabar from the 1st century. (Malankara is cognate of Maliankara) and hence the church was known as the Malankara Church.

Saint Thomas Christians

The Saint Thomas Christians are a group of Christians from the Malabar coast (now Kerala) in South India, that follows the tradition of conversion to Christianity by St. Thomas the Apostle.[3] The Syrian Malabar Nasranis are an ethnic people and in that sense a single community.[3] As an ethnic community they refer to themselves as Nasranis referring to the common cultural heritage and cultural tradition.[3] However, as a religious group they refer to themselves as the Mar Thoma Khristianis, or in English as Saint Thomas Christians referring to their religious tradition, due to a common ancestry of being the descendants of the early Malankara Church or Saint Thomas tradition of Christianity.[3]

First 15 Centuries

References to St. Thomas Christian tradition

  • Ambrose of Milan (AD 333-397) writes: "Even to those kingdoms which were shut out by rugged mountains became accessible to them as India to Thomas, Persia to Mathew...."
  • Jerome (AD 342-420) wrote as follows : "Jesus dwelt in all places; with Thomas in India, with Peter in Rome, with Paul in Illyricum, with Titus in Crete with Andrew in Achaia, with each apostolic man in each and all countries." epistles of Jerome.
  • Gregory, the Bishop of Tours (AD 538- 594) in his book In Gloria Martyrdom (Glory of the Martyrs) wrote: "Thomas, the Apostle, according to the history of passion, is declared to have suffered in India. After a long time his body was taken into a city which they called Edessa in Syria and there buried. Therefore, in that Indian place where he first rested there is a monastery and a church of wonderful size, and carefully adorned and arrayed." [7]
  • Ephrem the Syrian wrote a hymn blessing the "might that dwells in the hallowed bones" of St. Thomas. In the hymn says ...
"Where now, is there a place for me to flee to from the righteous?
I stirred up Death to slay the Apostles,
that I might be safe from their blows.
By their deaths now more exceedingly am I cruelly beaten.
The Apostle whom I slew in India is before me in Edessa:
he is here wholly and also there.
I went there, there was he:
here and there I have found him and been grieved." [8]
  • Local traditions among the Christians include the Rambaan Paattu or Thomma Parvom(The Song of the Lord Thomas), - a song / ballad about the Acts of Thomas written around 1600 by Rambaan Thomas. The poem is the oral tradition handed down through generations. The songs give precise data about the details of the Apostle's activity, dates his arrival in 50 AD, in the month of Dhanu (December), and his death in Mylapore (Mailapuram) to 72 AD, on the 3rd day of the month of Karkadakam (July)
  • Margom Kali and Mappila Paattu are series of songs of the Acts of Thomas and the history of the Malabar Church. They are sung in consonance with dance forms that are typical of the Syrian Christians. Some of them are dance dramas performed in the open as part of the festivals of the church.


190 AD- Pantaenus the philosopher visited India and found that there were many Christians in India and with them he found a copy of the Gospel according to Matthew in Hebrew.[9]

345 AD. – During the time of King Shapur II (310-379) of Persia, a group of 400 immigrants from Persia arrived in Malabar under the leadership of a merchant named Thomas of Cana, known as Knai Thomman (قناي تامن)(in English, Thomas the Zealot) .[10] Another immigration from Persia in the year 825AD under the leadership of a Persian merchant named Marwan Sabriso with two bishops named Mar Sapro and Mar Prodh. They cooperated with the Malankara Church, attended worship services together but remained a separate identity.

See also Knanaya .

883 AD. – Alfred the Great (849-899), King of Wessex, England sent gifts to Mar Thoma Christians of India through Sighelm, bishop of Sherborne.[11]

1225 AD. – Chau-Ju-Kua a Chinese traveller visited Kerala. In his writings he described the dress of a St.Thomas Christian bishop.[12]

1282 AD. – Kublai Khan (1215-1294) Emperor of China sent an emissary to Kollam, It was followed by an emissory from Kollam under the leadership of a St. Thomas Christian.[13]

1292 AD. – Marco Polo (1254-1324) on his return journey from China visited Kerala, mentions that, "The people are idolaters, though there are some Christians and Jews among them".[14]

Cheppeds: Collection of deeds on copper plates

The Rulers of Kerala, in appreciation their assistance, gave to the Malankara Nazranis, three deeds on copper plates. They gave the Nasranis various rights and privileges which were written on copper plates. These are known as Cheppeds, Royal Grants, Sasanam etc.[15] Five sheets of them are now in the custody of St. Thomas Christians.

  1. Iravi Corttan Deed: In the year 1225 AD. Sri Vira Raghava Chakravarti, gave a deed to Iravi Corttan ( Eravi Karthan) of Mahadevarpattanam in 774 . Two Brahmin families are witness to this deed showing that Brahmins were in Kerala by the eighth century.
  2. Tharissa palli Deed I: Perumal Sthanu Ravi Gupta (844-885) gave a deed in 849 AD, to Isodatta Virai for Tharissa Palli (church) at Curakkeni Kollam. According to historians, this is the first deed in Kerala that gives the exact date.[16]
  3. Tharissa palli Deed II: Continuation of the above, given after 849 AD.

The languages used are old Tamil letters with some Grantha letters intermingled,Pahlavi, Kufic and Hebrew.

These plates detail privileges awarded to the community by the then rulers.These influenced the development of the social structure in Kerala and privileges, rules for the communities . These are considered as one of the most important legal documents in the history of Kerala.[17]


During the first fifteen centuries, each parish appointed its own elders (Idavaka Mooppen). These elders met together and elected their Elder (Malankara Mooppen). Laying of hands on the Malankara Mooppen was by twelve Idavaka Mooppens. By 1500, Malankara Church was spread from Kannur in the North to Kollam in the South.


According to the Indian Christian tradition, the Indian church or Malankara Church was governed by the Malabar Yogam (an assembly of Malabar people). There was also an indigenous head of the Church of Malabar, called Jatikku Karthavian ( in Malayalam), which means The head of the caste ,i.e., the head of the St Thomas Christians, and also the “Archdeacon of All India.” According to the canons of the Church of East, the Archdeacon is the highest priestly rank. The indigenous Archdeacon of India served the needs of the ecclesiastical organisation of the Church. While originally the Archdeacon in the Church of the East was elected by the bishop according to merit, the office of the Archdeacon of India seems to have been hereditary in practice. It was the privilege of the Pakalomattam family of Kerala

Quoting the words of an olden Marthomacharitram Kallyanapattu ( a folk song )

"... Thankamayolla Vedam Seekaricha Naralill
Shankarapuri yanum Pakalomattom ennum
Keerthi parukiya randu veettukarannu
Sleehakarthavin namathil
Thirupattavum Koduthu..."
"(... Of the people who received the blessed Scripture
Shankaripuri and Pakalomattam
The two famous families
Were given Priesthood
In the name of Christ)"

Some of the duties included selection of seminarians, appointing and transferring of priests, exercising temporal powers over the church properties, collecting the levies from the faithful etc. The kings and princes of Kerala considered him as the chief of Christians.

The kings of Cochin used to give royal insignias to the newly elected archdeacons. On behalf of the Christians he used to parley with the rulers and negotiated with local chieftains. Armed bodyguards used to escort the Archdeacons on their journeys. The archdeacon of the Kerala Church was not an equal to the arch-deacons of Europe. He was a much larger entity with wider powers and exalted position. He was also called prince of believers, Lord of the Christians, and Archdeacon of the whole of India. The Archdeacons were the right arm of the Metropolitan Bishop, and in their absence or vacancy held spiritual control of the Church also.

From Knai Thoma's time to the 16th century the Syriac Patriarchs appointed Bishops used to exercise spiritual control of Kerala church on the request of Kerala Christians. These bishops used to ordain priests, bless churches, gave sacraments, bless "syth" and performed other functions. They were held as honoured guests. The metropolitans used to be known as sitting in the throne of St. Thomas and exercising suzerainty over Indian Church. The Metropolitans used to exercise their control over the Church through the Archdeacons. In practical and day-to-day functioning of the Church Arch-deacons exercised superintendence.

Geevarghese Archdeacon

Geevarghese Archdeacon of Pakalomattam family was appointed as the Archdeacon in 1502.

Archdeacon George of Christ

Archdeacon George of Christ was also from Pakalomattom family. Pope Gregory XIII in his letter to the clergy and the St. Thomas Christians calls him as Bishop. Pope Gregory XIII directs another letter dated 5 March 1580, to the clergy and laity of the Saint Thomas Christians exhorting to be obedient to their Prelates Mar Abraham the Archbishop of Angamale and George of Christ the Bishop of Palayor.

In 1566 Patriarch Abdisho authorised Mar Abraham to ordain him (George of Christ) as bishop and suffragan (successor) to Mar Abraham. Both Mar Abraham and the Jesuit fathers had written to Rome about it. Pope Gregory XIII confirmed this nomination by his brief “Accepimus quod”, issued on 4 March 1580.(G.Beltrami, La Chiesa Caldeo, pp. 196–7). But the archdeacon who, out of humility, had previously declined this honour was not consecrated even after the papal confirmation. He died in 1585 AD.

His brother Yohannan was Archdeacon (1585-93). Another brother Jacob became Archdeacon in 1596.

Archdeacon Geevarghese of the Cross

He was the son of the elder brother of Archdeacon of the Christ. By the last year of Bishop Abraham, he became the Archdeacon. After the death of Persian Bishop Abraham in 1597, he led the Indian Church. He led the church amidst Portuguese intervention. The Synod of Diamper of 1599 was held during his time. In 1601 Francis Roz became Bishop. In beginning there was cordiality. But the deliberate downgradation of Ankamali and the inertia of Bishop Roz frustrated him. When the Arch deacon protested, Rox ex-communicated him. In 1615 Bishop and Archdeacon reconciled each other, but again fell out later. The next Bishop Britto also did not recognize the Arch deacon's status of the Archdeacons. He led the church in a period of severe stress of the Archdeacons.

Arrival of the Portuguese

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The Portuguese Catholics started settling in India with the arrival of Vasco Da Gama on Sunday, May 20, 1498. From that time the Portuguese were powerful in the western parts of India and had control over the sea routes.

The Portuguese erected a Latin diocese in Goa (1534) and another at Cochin (1558) in the hope of bringing the Thomas Christians under their jurisdiction. In a Goan Synod held in 1585 it was decided to introduce the Latin liturgy and practices among the Thomas Christians.

Alexis de Menezes, Archbishop of Goa from 1595 until his death in 1617 decided to bring the Kerala Christians to obedience after the death of Bishop Mar Abraham (the last Syrian Metropolitan of Malabar, laid to rest at St. Hormis church, Angamaly), an obedience that they conceived as complete conformity to the Roman or ‘Latin’ customs. This meant separating the Nasranis not only from the Catholicosate of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, but also from the Chaldaean Patriarchate of Babylon, and subjecting them directly to the Latin Archbishopric of Goa.

The Portuguese refused to accept the legitimate authority of the Indian hierarchy and its relation with the East Syrians, and in 1599 at the Synod of Diamper (held in Udayamperur), the Portuguese Archbishop of Goa imposed a large number of Latinizations. The Portuguese succeeded in appointing a Latin bishop to govern the Thomas Christians, and the local Christians’ customs were officially anathematised as heretical and their manuscripts were condemned to be either corrected or burnt. The Portuguese padroado (’patronage’) was extended over them. From 1599 up to 1896 these Christians were under the Latin Bishops who were appointed either by the Portuguese Padroado or by the Roman Congregation of Propaganda Fide. Every attempt to resist the latinization process was branded heretical by them. Under the indigenous leader, archdeacon, the Thomas Christians resisted, but the result was disastrous.

The oppressive rule of the Portuguese padroado provoked a violent reaction on the part of the indigenous Christian community. The first solemn protest took place in 1653, known as the Koonan Kurishu Satyam (Koonan Cross Oath). Under the leadership of Archdeacon Thomas, a part of the Thomas Christians publicly took an oath in Matancherry, Cochin, that they would not obey the Portuguese bishops and the Jesuit missionaries. In the same year, in Alangad, Archdeacon Thomas was ordained, by the laying on of hands of twelve priests, as the first known indigenous Metropolitan of Kerala, under the name Mar Thoma I. Those who took, or supported, the Oath became the Puthenkoottukar or New Party, while those who remained faithful to the Catholic Church became the Pazhayakoottukar or Old Party.

After the Coonan Cross Oath, between 1661 and 1662, out of the 116 churches, the Old Party reclaimed eighty-four churches, leaving Archdeacon Mar Thoma I only thirty-two churches. The eighty-four churches and their congregations were the body from which the Syro Malabar Catholic Church have descended. The other thirty-two churches and their congregations were the body from which the Syriac Orthodox (Jacobites & Orthodox), Thozhiyur (1772), Mar Thoma (Reformed Syrians) (1874), Syro Malankra Catholic Church have originated.[18] In 1665, Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel, a Bishop send by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch arrived in India and the dissident group under the leadership of the Archdeacon welcomed him.[19][20] This visit resulted in the Mar Thoma party claiming spiritual authority of the Antiochean Patriarchate and gradually introduced the West Syrian liturgy, customs and script to the Malabar Coast.

Though most of the Thomas Christians gradually relented in their strong opposition to the Western control, the arrival of Mar Gregorios in 1665 marked the beginning of a formal schism among the Thomas Christians. Those who accepted the West Syrian theological and liturgical tradition of Mar Gregorios became known as Jacobites. Those who continued with East Syrian theological and liturgical tradition and stayed faithful to the Synod of Diamper are known as the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in communion with the Catholic Church. They got their own Syro-Malabar Hierarchy on 21 December 1923 with the Metropolitan Mar Augustine Kandathil as the Head of their Church.

St. Thomas Christians by this process got divided in to East Syrians and West Syrians.

Malankara Church Today

File:Nasrani Evolution.jpg

Relationship of the Nasrani groups

After 16 centuries of unity in the Malankara Church, the Malankara church was divided into two after the Diamper Synod, and was further divided during the later centuries. Now the Malankara Church is divided into many autocephalous and autonomous churches. The churches that share the Malankara Church Tradition are:

  1. Syro-Malabar Catholic Church
  2. Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
  3. Jacobite Syrian Christian Church
  4. Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church
  5. Syro-Malankara Catholic Church
  6. St. Thomas Evangelical Church
Malankara Church
Church Name Population
Catholic- Syro-Malabar Church 3,900,000 [21][22]
Catholic- Syro-Malankara Church 150,000
Orthodox- Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church 2,000,000[23]
Orthodox- Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church 1,200,000[24]
Reformed- Mar Thoma Syrian Church 1,061,940[25]
Orthodox- Malabar Independent Syrian Church 10,000

See also

Notes and References

  1. Kerala Council for Historical Research findings.
  2. 2.0 2.1 T.K. Joseph (1955). Six St. Thomases Of South India. University of California. p. 27. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Menachery G; 1973, 1998; Mundalan, A. M; 1984; Podipara, Placid J. 1970; Leslie Brown, 1956
  4. James Hough 1893; T.K Velu Pillai, 1940
  5. Menachery, George 2000, Menachery & Chakkalakal W 1987
  6. Menachery G; 1973, 1982, 1998; Leslie Brown, 1956
  7. Glory of the Martyrs — Gregory, the Bishop of Tours
  8. McVey, Kathleen E (trans) (1989). Ephrem the Syrian: hymns. Paulist Press. ISBN 0-8091-3093-9.
  9. Church History of Eusebius. Book V, Chapter X.
  10. Menachery G; 1973, 1998; Weil,S. 1982; James Hough 1893; Thomas Puthiakunnel 1973; Vellian Jacob 2001; Koder S. 1973
  11. ’’The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’’ Part II.
  12. Mathew, N.M.(2003) St.Thomas Christians of Malabar Through Ages. Page 76.
  13. Mathew, N.M.(2003) St.Thomas Christians of Malabar Through Ages. Page 76-77.
  14. Marco Polo. The Book of Travels Translated by Ronald Latham. 1958. Page 287.
  15. Syrian Christians of Kerala- SG Pothen- page 32-33 ( 1970)
  16. Sreedhara Menon, A. A Survey of Kerala History.(Mal).Page 54.
  17. NSC Network (2007),The Plates and the Privileges of Syrian Christians Brown L (1956)- The Indian Christians of St. Thomas-Pages 74.75, 85 to 90 ,Mundanadan (1970),SG Pothen (1970)
  18. Catholic Encyclopedia- “St. Thomas Christians” The Carmelite Period,Dr. Thekkedath, History of Christianity in India”
  19. Claudius Buchanan 1811 ., Menachery G; 1973, 1982, 1998; Podipara, Placid J. 1970; Leslie Brown, 1956; Tisserant, E. 1957; Michael Geddes, 1694;
  20. Dr. Thekkedath, History of Christianity in India”
  24. Fahlbusch, Erwin; Lochman, Jan Milic; Mbiti, John S.; Vischer, Lukas; Bromiley, Geoffrey William (2003). The Encyclopedia Of Christianity (Encyclopedia of Christianity) Volume 5. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. pp. 285. ISBN 0-8028-2417-X. 


  • Menachery G (1973) The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, Ed. George Menachery, B.N.K. Press, vol. 2, ISBN 81-87132-06-X, Lib. Cong. Cat. Card. No. 73-905568 ; B.N.K. Press
  • Thomas Puthiakunnel, (1973) "Jewish colonies of India paved the way for St. Thomas", The Saint Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, ed. George Menachery, Vol. II., Trichur.
  • The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India,Ed. G. Menachery.
  • James Hough (1893) "The History of Christianity in India".
  • Menachery G (ed); (1998) "The Indian Church History Classics", Vol.I, The Nazranies, Ollur, 1998. [ISBN 81-87133-05-8].

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