Christianity in India had been in existence much before it reached the shores of countries like England and other European countries. In fact the objective of Vasco Da Gama was to not only to find a new spice route but also to establish contact with ancient Indian Christians.


One view of the origin of Indian Christianity was that St. Thomas the apostle came to India during the 1st century AD and had converted many in the south of India, particularly the states of Kerala and Tamil nadu. There are in fact two traditions named COROMANDAL and MALABAR tradition. The Coromandal tradition is supposed to be the oldest and centers on the place Mylapore which is in Chennai (formerly known as MADRAS). In fact The San Thome Cathedral there contains the tomb of St. Thomas which the Venetian explorer Marco Polo is supposed to have visited in AD 1295. However the later Malabar tradition has many ardent supporters. In this tradition, St.Thomas's name is associated with certain specific places and ancient families. St. Thomas was supposed to have visited places like Palaiyur, Parur, Kokkamangalam and Niranam and had conferred priesthood to members of certain families in Malabar.


There is also the view that it was the Syrian merchants and Nestorian missionaries of the Persian church who brought Christianity to India in the 7th century AD Many East Syrian Christians had migrated and one group amongst them is associated with Thomas of Cana (4th Century AD). But the fact is that the Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala have different strains within their fold. One was the Syriac Jewish Christians known as Knanayas who have strong Jewish ties and the strong link that they had with Syria and Persia. In fact Syriac Christianity is referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church. In fact it was this which prompted the Portuguese and other western missionaries to accuse the Saint Thomas Christians of succumbing to Nestorian heresy.

Early Christians like the Jews had the support of Hindu rulers and had experienced no persecution as it had happened to early Christians in the Roman Empire during the first millennium. The seventy two privileges mentioned in the various copper-plate grants and other trading rights granted by the 'Tazhekkattu Sasanam' bear ample testimony to this



This coastal town of Kerala is renowned for various reasons. It was the seat of the ancient Chera Empire and closely linked with the legend of Kannagi in the Tamil classic SILAPPADHIKARAM. It had close trade links with Rome and was known as MUZIRIS and it was here St.Thomas came in the year 52 AD and first preached about Christianity.


This was the place where St.Thomas converted the upper caste Brahmins of Kerala and one of the three churches which continues to exist unscathed by time. The other four have undergone changes. It is located in Chavakkad, Thrissur district, Kerala.


Located in Chennai the state capital of Tamil Nadu, it is here the mortal remains of St. Thomas is buried after he attained martyrdom in St. Thomas Mount located nearby. Believed to have been built by the apostle himself, it rebuilt in 1523 and raised to the status of a minor Basilica by Pope Pius XII on 16th March 1956.

Kodungallur church
Kodungallur church

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Comments 12 comments

kurienkoshy 4 years ago

According to Syrian tradition, the first group of Christian immigrants came as refugees from the great persecution of Persian Christians which Sapor II began in 339. Now this view is rejected by research scholars. Sapor’s persecution was confined to Persia only and there is no record of the arrival of Christians by taking a sea route. The accepted view is that the persecution took place in Mylapore by Hindu fanatics and the persecuted Christians took a land route and reached Kodungalloor. They arrived at Kodungallor in 345, led by a rich merchant named Kanayi Thomas, or Thomas of Cana. It is claimed that there were several priests, a Persian bishop, 400 laymen, or, as one of the accounts puts more precisely, 472 families from around Baghdad, Nineveh, and Jerusalem. He is known to the Syrian Christians variously as Thomas of Cana, Thomas the Merchant, Thomas the Canaanite, Thomas of Jerusalem, Knaye Thoma, Thomas Cananeus, or Thomas Cannaneo. A Syrian Chritian group (Southists) claims today that Thomas of Cana was a Jew and that they are the pure-blooded descendants of the immigrnats who came with him. They call themselves ‘Knanaya’ Syrians and to bolster this imaginary claim and to retain their mode of worship, they do not intermarry with other Christians. There is no reference in early Portuguese records about any division as Northist and Southist or any immigration of families as shown in Southist tradition. There is also no reference to Jewish- Christian origin, as claimed by Southist families. But Armenian archives bring out the fact that Thomas of Cana was an Armenian merchant and not a Jew. India’s links with Persia and Mesopotamia go back to a very distant period. In 327 BC, Armenians are believed to have come to India, when some Armenians joined the auxiliary elements of the forces under the command of Alexander the Great when he crossed Armenia en route to India. Armenians were well aware of land routes to reach India, as also the general and political geography, socio-cultural milieu, and economic life of the Indian subcontinent. Flourishing Armenian settlements existed in Madras for several years. It is said that Armenians in Madras guided the Portuguese to St. Thomas’ tomb in Mylapore when the first Portuguese reached Madras. Armenian records say that an Armenian merchant-cum-diplomat, known as ‘Knayi Thomman’ or ‘Kanaj Tomma’, meaning ‘Thomas the merchant’ reached the Malabar Coast in 780 using the overland route. Thomas Cana was an affluent merchant dealing chiefly in spices and muslins. This migration of Christians, in the view of Firth, cannot be treated as historical fact. "No deeds of copper plates in the name of Thomas of Cana are now extant," writes C.B. Firth in An Introduction to Indian Church History, "... (and) it would be rash to insist upon all the details of the story of Thomas the merchant as history. Nevertheless the main point—the settlement in Malabar of a considerable colony of Syrians - may well be true” . It is also probable that Thomas of Cana came to Kodungallor from Mylapore when there was persecution. Middle East immigrants who had settled in Mylapore would have probably indulged in local trade and commerce to become a flourishing and prosperous business community. The wealth and economic prosperity of the Christians probably would have excited the envy and hatred of local Hindu chieftains which eventually led to large scale persecution. The date of the arrival of Thomas of Cana is also disputed. The Dutch writer Visscher claims AD 745 whereas J.Hough assigns AD 780. According to tradition he married two local women. According to Syrian tradition the king was alleged to have granted him and other Christians 72 privileges, which spontaneously elevated them to the rank of Nairs and other upper-caste people of the land. Adriaan Moens, the Dutch Governor of Malabar, relying on local legends, says that Thomas of Cana obtained great influence with the princes by means of his riches and wealth and “they were not only ranked among the nobility of Malabar, but were even preferred before the royal Nairs.” Day had also collected traditional account from Syrian Christians and says that Thomas of Cana and his followers were raised to the status of “Castade Nairos” that is, nobility of the Nair caste, and they generally were given the privilege to “carry a sword in the hand, as a token of their dignity.” Moens and Day have relied on local tradition and not on any documentary evidence, and therefore, their accounts do not have any historical truth. The earliest reference to Thomas of Cana is from a Portuguese report written by Penteado in 1518 .He was reporting to the king of Portugal about the existence of Christians in Quilon and Cranganore. According to him Thomas of Cana was a very old Armenian merchant, and with no way to go back to his native place, bought a land from the king and settled down in Cranganore. He had converted some slaves. After his death there was a dispute between his two sons over the property. Although the elder son got the help of the Jews, the Jews finally turned against him and

expelled all the Christians. Penteado’s account appears to be realistic and all other accounts are fictitious and imaginary. Probably, property dispute would have been the root cause for the emergence of Southists and Northists. After the death of Thomas of Cana there was dispute between his sons for his property on the basis of blood relationship which would have been challenged by other relatives or even by his another son. People who succeeded to own Thomas Cana’s property with the help of Jews or other mercenaries called themselves Southists to establish exclusive ownership to the property and to ostracize the rival group. This family enmity prohibited marriage from rival group so that there would be no claim for property by the other group. So they raised the bogey of ‘pure blood.’ How could the ‘Southists’ claim pure blood, when Thomas of Cana himself had married two untouchable mukkuva women? It is claimed by Syrians without any evidence that the zenith of the prosperity of the community seems to have been between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, as then they were permitted to have a king of their own, the extent of whose authority cannot be stated with any historical precision. Their house of princes was known as the ‘Valiyarvattam’ or ‘Undiyamperur’ dynasty. It however afterwards became extinct and was taken over by Perumpatappu or Native Cochin and the Syrian community came under their subjection. Most probably Valiyarvattam was a large estate given to a Syrian owing allegiance to the king. Even the Pulayas, outcastes and untouchables, claim that they were once independent and lived under a Pulaya king who ruled from a fort at the village of Pulayanarkotta in the hills close to Trivandrum.

Antony Kureekkal 4 years ago

I have done my research on the validity of St. Thomas Christians and please read this on http://antonyka.blogspot.in/ and give your feedback.

kurienkoshy 4 years ago

The painting of a Syrian man and woman. It is an imaginary painting showing the man with kudumi to claim Brahmin status, although most Syrians were lower caste converts and the woman with white dress is to imitate Portuguese converts, especially in Goa. Since there was no colour painting when Middle East immigrants arrived in Kerala, this painting was done in 20th century. I think it was first published in Cochin handbook in 1945. So it was a deliberate attempt to give superior caste status for Syrians and most probably it was painted by a Syrian.

A.Yeshuratnam 4 years ago


It has been a general misconception that Thomas of Cana brought with him 400 Jews or 72 families. In those days only men could travel by ships, especially in long voyages to unknown lands. Long before the arrival of Thoma there were Jewish colonies in Kerala. If Thomas of Cana were a Jew, he would have reported at the Jewish settlements. Jewish records do not mention anywhere that this Thomas of cana came to Kerala.

Another misconception is that immigrants from Syria were Jews. The Bible says in Mark 7 about a woman from Syria whose daughter had an evil spirit in her . "The woman was a Gentile, born in the region of Phoenicia in Syria." Mark 7:26. As such, if at all Thomas of Cana had come, he could not be regarded as a Jew but only as a Gentile. Portuguese and Armenian records say that Thoma was an Armenian, a Gentile.

According to tradition, the first group of immigrants of 400 laymen led byThomas of Cana arrived at Cranganore in 345 A.D. Alexis de Menzes, Roman Catholic Archbishop, arrived at Kochi early in 1599 which subsequently led to the Synod of Diamper and the oath of Coonen Cross. The Portuguese estimates placed the number of Syrian Christians as high as 200,000 when Alexis de Menzes wanted to reform the Syrian church. How did the Syrian Christian population increase betrween 345 A.D. to 1599 A.D.? In a caste-ridden and conservative society, no Nair or Brahmin woman would have ventured to mar.ry the foreigners. In the first instance, some immigrants would have married lower caste women when they decided to settle in Kerala. Like the Arabs who married lower caste women in Malabar, Christian immigrnats and their untouchable caste wives and their offspring would have lived in the areas allotted to them by the rulers. Later they would have converted lower caste people such as fisher men (mukkuvas), slaves, barbers, washermen and other labourers (Ezhavas) with whom they had daily contacts in managing the routine affairs of their settlements. These converted untouchables and offspring of immigrants would have married among themselves to increase the Syrian Christian population. So when the Portuguese met the Syrian Christians for the first time there were more than 200,000 members.

There was population explosion of Syrian Christans from the time CMS missionaries launched a spirited campaign to convert as many untouchables as possible. Bailey, Fenn and Baker openly accommodated the Ezhavas and outcastes in the Syrian church. In Alappuzha Norton converted a wide range of untouchables, especially Ezhavas. Hawksworth baptized Ezhavas and other outcastes in Mavelikara, Poovathoor and Kodukulanji and constructed churches for them. Hawksworth is remebered for the large sccale conversion of slaves in Mallappally. The first slave was baptized in 1851 with the name of Abel. Although Ezhava converts who had become Christians earler opposed the conversion of slaves, as years rolled by ( a period spread over 200 years ) slaves also became part of mainstream Syrian Christian population.

Scholarly analyses and painstaking research make illogical the claim of Namboodirii descent when there were no Namboodiris in Ist century A.D. when St. Thomas visited Kerala and the further claim of Jewish descent ,ignoring the fact that Thomas of Cana was a Gentile, and not a Jew according to Armenian and Portuguese archives. In this context DNA sample taken by some persons to establish Jewish descent should be subject to scientific scrutiny. Conversely, DNA sample of Syrian Christians of Mallappally will show descent from slaves and Mavelikara descent from untouchables (Ezhavas). With education in CMS institutions, wealth from business and estates and with the freedom of social mobility even to foreign countries, Syrian Chrisdtians emerged as an aritocratic, educated and cultured community.

devapiryasolomon 6 years ago

The original Mylapur Sivan Temple Kapaleeshwarar was on the Seashore, was demolished by Portughese and spread this falsehood.

http://devapriyaji.wordpress.com/saint-thomas/ explains in depth the view of Vatican etc.,

I am putting this reply there are also for record.

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ram_m 6 years ago from India Author

Thank you Jaya Reddy

jaya Reddy 6 years ago

Thank you very much for the history of early Christianity in Inida. The pictures are very good.

jaya Reddy 6 years ago

Thank you very much for the history of early Christianity in Inida. The pictures are very good.

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ram_m 7 years ago from India Author

Thank you RGraf, I hope to add more info later.

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RGraf 7 years ago from Wisconsin

Thank you for the history lesson and the beautiful pictures.

ram_m profile image

ram_m 8 years ago from India Author

Thank you. The heritage of Syrian Christians who are predominantly in the southern states of India (notably Kerala) is truly remarkable.

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SweetiePie 8 years ago from Southern California, USA

I am glad you wrote interesting article about the history of Christianity in India.

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