Sunday, August 26, 2012



Courtesy: Kuzhipallil
Nasrani Syrian Christians ( Syrian-Malabar -Mappila-Saint Thomas Christians ) people are an ethnic community in Kerala. Their heritage is Syriac-Keralite, their culture South Indian, their faith St. Thomas Christian, and their language Malayalam. According to the Acts of Thomas apostle, the first converts made by St. Thomas in India were Malabari Jews, who had settled in Kerala since the time of 'King Solomon' of Israel. 

Their tradition goes back to the very beginnings of first century Christian thought, and the seven churches that are established by St. Thomas the Apostle among the natives and the Jewish diaspora in Kerala. They follow a unique Hebrew-Syriac Christian tradition which includes several Jewish elements along with some Hindu customs.It is believed that St. Thomas travelled to Kerala in AD. 52 and preached gospel to people of several religions such as Judaism, Buddhism, Brahmin religion and other tribal religions". Syrian Christians in Kerala is a community that has emerged through centuries through conversion of local inhabitants and the migrations and colonisations of Jewish, Persian and other Middle Eastern communities. As mentioned earlier, the very first group was converted to this community as a result of missionary works by St. Thomas . They are known as Syrian Christians because of their usage of Syriac as their liturgical language. Syriac is a language (North-West Semitic) that is closer to Hebrew than to Arabic and was developed in the city of Edessa (now Sanliurfa, Turkey). Syriac is related to the Palestinian Jewish Aramaic that was the mother tongue of Jesus and his disciples.

The syrian christians's connections with jews is more believable than their nampoothiri roots. It was natural for St.Thomas to go to the Jews and convert them first ( after all he was also a jew and spoken the same language). It may be some jew merchents who took him to Kerala as jews were trading with kerala from the time of king Solomon. The Syrian Christian community in Kerala was almost isolated from the other mainstream Christian communities across the world (particularly the western world) until the arrival of Portuguese missionaries. After the arrival of Vasco Da Gama, many Portuguese missionaries of Roman Catholic faith preached gospel across the coastal areas of India. That was the period of inquisition in Europe and therefore, they opened inquisition centres in Goa similar to that in Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese missionaries suspected that the St Thomas Christians were under influence of Nestorian heresy because of their connection with the Church of East.


Many historians argue that the Portuguese bishop Aleixo de Menezes converted the Saint Thomas Christians to the Roman Catholic Church. Menezes partly succeeded in Latinising the indigenous Church of St Thomas through the Synod of Diamper in 1599. 

Following the Synod of Diamper, the Syrian Christians revolted against Portuguese supremacy (Coonan Cross Oath), in 1653. As a result, the church of St Thomas in Malabar Coast was divided into two 1) Pazhayakoottukaar - came directly under the patriarch of Rome (Pope). 2) Puthenkoottukaar (known as Jacobites) who, with the help of Dutch, sought liturgical support from the patriarch of Antioch. This was the most unfortunate event in the history of Syrian Christians as it divided them into two groups that were in union for fifteen centuries. Later, several divisions took place among Puthenkoottukaar as a result of several reformation movements and political disputes. At present, there are seven churches in Kerala who claim their origin from St Thomas: the Syro-Malabar Church, the Church of the East, the Jacobite Orthodox Church, the Indian Orthodox Church, the Syro-Malankara Church, Malabar Independent Syrian Church and the Marthoma Church. Many of these Churches maintained their liturgical language as Syriac until recently.


Jewish history starts with Abraham, probably 17th century BC. Abraham had two sons named Isaac and Ishmael. The heritage and traditions of Abraham continued through Isaac. Isaac had two sons Jacob and Esau. Jacob was his father's descendant and he had twelve sons. They were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin. The twelve tribes of Jews are the descendants of all these people and are known with their names.

After the exodus from Egypt (13th century BC) Jewish people settled in Israel and established their first kingdom in BC 1020 by Saul. Jerusalem became the capital of Israel in 1000 BC during the reign of David. Later in BC 960, King Solomon made the first temple of Israelites and it became the national and spiritual centre of Jewish people. Solomon had preference towards his own tribe and this resulted in unsatisfactory relationship between the monarchy and other tribes. After his death in BC 930, a revolution resulted in the breaking away of the country into a northern kingdom (Israel - the ten tribes) and southern kingdom (Judea - the tribes of Judah and Benjamin).

In BC 722, the Assyrian people invaded Israel and this exiled Jewish people to all parts of the world particularly to eastern part of Iran and western part of Afghanistan . Thus, ten tribes were lost. But, Judea continued as separate country until Babylonians attacked them. In BC 586, Babylonians destroyed the 1st temple of Solomon. Most Jews from Judea were exiled to Babylonia. The exile to Babylonia marked the beginning of Jewish Diaspora. After 50 years, the Persians, who conquered Babylonia, allowed the Jews in Babylonia to return to their home land. On return, they built their second temple at Jerusalem. From BC 332 onwards, Alexander the great ruled Jerusalem. In BC 163, Maccabees lead a revolt against the Greeks and Jews enjoyed the victory against Hellenic rule. As a result, a royal dynasty called Hasmonean began and it lasted until Roman Empire captured Jerusalem. In BC 63, Roman Empire Pompey invaded Israel and Jews again came under foreign rule. This Roman rule continued during the time of Jesus and lasted until AD 313.


Israel was attacked by the Assyrian emperor-Nebuchadenazzar- in 6th century BC and they were exiled to all parts of the world and thus the ten tribes were lost. Many scholars argue that they are diluted in other communities of South America to Western Europe and hence are hidden .The exile during the Babylonian attack was mainly to the neighbouring countries, reachable either by sea or land. Obviously, the first travel might have been to the neighbouring countries such as Babylonia (the present day Iran, Iraq and some parts of Afghanistan). The second choice was to exile through the sea and that mainly enabled them to travel to Yemen and then might have used the sea routes to the Malabar Coast. Traditionally, the Jewish people are prominent in trading and therefore, they mainly travelled across the ancient silk routes. 

As a result of a mass exodus (BC 604 - 562), of Jews who were freed from the Babylon captivity by Nebuchadenazzar, the colonisation of Jews in Kodungalloor might have started as reported by Puthiyakunnel. The history tells that there were Jewish colonies at Kodungalloor, Parur, Palayur, Kollam, Muttom, Chenot etc. It is notable that all these Jewish colonies are near to seven churches established by St Thomas. 

Several scholars reports that Gospel of Matthew was written for those Jews who accepted Christ as Messiah. Matthew 10:5-7 reads "These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying, the kingdom of heaven is at hand." In the earlier years, the Gospel news was spread only among the Jews. Or on the other hand, several Jews in the early years of Christianity accepted Christ as Messiah. We can see several references in bible asking whether to follow Jewish customs by those gentiles who accepted Messiah. He discusses that until AD 70 (the year of second Jewish temple's destruction) Christianity was not considered as a separate sect. From 74 AD onwards, a group of Jews who did not accepted Messiah wanted to protect their religion from Christians and is known as Orthodox Judaism or Rabbinic Judaism. It should be noted that the St Thomas travelled to Malabar Coast in AD 52, a year when Christianity's divergence from Judaism had not started. So it is logical to believe that he was in search of Jews of Malabar coast.

Similarity of "Pesaha" night rituals of Nasranies and Jews.( Both groups make unleavened bread on the day of Passover. No leavened (containing yeast) foods or grains are eaten.Paal among the Nasranies may be a representation of wine among Jews. The head of the family serve the food.Meals of both groups include bitter food. Bitter juice among Nasranies and maror among Jews.). 
The similarity of naming conventions followed by both groups "The first or eldest son is given the name of his paternal grandfather and the eldest daughter the name of her paternal grandmother. The second son bears the name of his maternal grandfather and the second daughter the name of her maternal grandmother. There is freedom of choice in naming other children, who are sometimes given the names of uncles and aunts." This was the naming convention followed by every Nasrani parents until recently although the names were localised. After the arrival of English education in India, many of these names were replaced with their equivalent English names. But the English names were used only in official documentation and the local names were mostly preserved. After Travancore and Cochin joined the Indian Union, there has been continuous effort among the leaders of Nasranies to portray them as a community holding Indian culture. 
Syrian Cross: The symbol of the Nasranies is the Syrian cross, also called the Mar Thoma sleeba. The origin of this cross is rather disputed but it is believed that it was derived from the Jewish menorah, the ancient symbol of the Hebrews. The Jewish menorah consists of a branched candle stand for seven candlesticks (Exodus 25). In Mar Thoma sleeba the six branches, (three on either side of the cross) represents God as the burning bush, while the central branch holds the cross, the dove at the tip of the cross represents the Holy Spirit. (Exodus 25:31). 
Church centred life and Synagogue centred life: The Nasranies and Cochin Jews are two communities grown in parallel in Malabar Coast. The life style of Cochin Jews was synagogue centred. The Nasranies also have similar life style centred in their churches. It is well known that every Nasrani churche irrespective of the denominations have committee meeting after Qurbana (mass). 
Kiss of peace: There is a custom called Kaimuthu among the Nasranies at the conclusion of forty days mourning period after someone dies. This is similar to 'kiss of peace' (kaiyyasoori), a custom that is seen in some Nasrani churches at the conclusion of Qurbana, which is passed from Bishop to Priest to worshiper. Kiss of peace is a sign of respect and friendship and has its roots in the Jewish Temple worship. 
Deathbed blessing: The blessing text, given by the father on his deathbed to the children by Jews and Nasranies are similar. For Nasranies: "God gave his blessing to Abraham, Abraham to Isaac, Isaac gave that to Jacob, my my parents....and my parents to me....and now, dear son (daughter), I give it to you: For Jews: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our Lord, and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, and the great mighty and the revered God" 
Origin of Palappam and Kallappam: It is believed that the Palappam and Kallappam were derived from an ancient Jewish food. Wedding ceremony: Exchange of wedding rings among Nasranies might have been derived from Palestinian Jewish temple rites. The position of the bride standing on the right side of the bridegroom and bridal veil (manthrakodi) might have also originated from Jewish customs.


30 The Crucifixion.

40s Apostle Thomas in the service of King Gondaphares in Takshasila
52 Nov 21 St. Thomas, the apostle, landed at Cranganore (Kodungalloor, in the present Thrissur District)
52-72 The Apostle builds 7 churches: Palayoor, Kodungaloor, Parur, Kokamangalam, Niranam, Nilackal, Kollam.
72 Jul. 3 Martyrdom of St. Thomas in the vicinity of Mylapore, Madras.
190 Pantaenus, probably the founder of the famous Catechetical School of Alexandria, visited India and the Nazranies. 
345 Thomas of Cana from Persia landed at Kodungallur with 72 families of immigrants.
340-360 By the Thazhekad Sasanam the Nazranies granted special rights and privileges.
400 North Pudukkad church founded.
510 Udayamperore (Diamper) church built.
825 Mar Sabor and Mar Proth at Quilon.
1293 Marco Polo, a Venetian traveller, visited the tomb of St. Thomas (at Mylapore), and Kerala.
1329 Aug.9 Jordan Catelani appointed first bishop of the diocese of Quilon created by Pope John XXII.
1498 May 20 Vasco de Gama lands at Kappad near Kozhikode.
1514 Jun 12 Portuguese Funchal rule over Christians in India.
1524 Dec 24 Vasco de Gama buried at St. Francis Church, Fort Cochin.
1544-45 St. Francis Xavier in Travancore.
1557 Pope Paul IV erects the Diocese of Cochin. Canonization process of Francis Xavier begun at Cochin.
1568 Synagogue of White Jews built in Cochin.
1599 Jun 20-26 Archbishop Alexis Menezes convenes the Synod of Diamper (Udayamperoor).
1601 Francis Roz was appointed as the first Latin bishop of the St. Thomas Christians.
1653 Jan 3 Coonan Cross Oath at Mattancherry, Cochin.
1659 Dec 3 The Vicariate of Malabar is erected by Pope Alexander VII.
1663 Jan 6 The Dutch conquer Cochin and destroy Catholic churches and institutions in Cochin.
1795 Oct 20 Conquest of Cochin by the British.
1840 Apr 10 St.Thomas Christians came under the archdiocese of Verapoly.
1886 Sept 1 Erection of the Catholic Hierarchy in India by Pope Leo XIII.
1911 Aug 29 Pius X restored the Vicariate of Kottayam for the Suddhists of the Syro-Malabar Rite, descendants of the immigrants of A.D. 345.
1930 Sept 20 Reunion of the eminent Jacobite Archbishop Mar Ivanios, Bishop Mar Theophilus with the Catholic Church.
1932 June 11 The establishment of the Syro-Malankara Hierarchy by Pope Pius XI. Mar Ivanios becomes Archbishop of Trivandrum, and Mar Theophilus Bishop of Tiruvalla.
1953 Dec 31 Erection of the diocese of Tellichery by Pope Pius XII.
1956 Jan 10 Pope John XXIII raised the diocese of Changanacherry into an Archdiocese with Kottayam and Palai as Suffragan Sees.
1956 Nov.1 The present 'Kerala State' is established.
1962 July.3 Revised Syro-Malabar Liturgy in force. Holy Qurbana in Malayalam.
1986 Feb. 1-10 Visit of Pope John Paul II to Kerala.
1992 Dec.16 Pope John Paul II raises the Syro-Malabar Church to a Major Archiepiscopal Sui Juris Church

Courtesy: Nasrani Syrian Christians Network and Prof: George 

1 comment:

  1. When St. Thomas visited Kerala and introduced Christianity, the early converts belonging to different grades in society on the basis of occupation were commonly called Christians. But the name Christian was changed to Nasrani when the Arabs came to Kerala. Muslims used the word Nasrtani in a contemptuous and derogatory manner. Christians and Jews were hated by Muslims in the Middle east and so they used the word 'Nasrani' in a derogatory and spitedul manner, as the Greeks called others 'barbarians.' Muslims quote the Koran to call Christians andf Jews as 'Nasranis.'
    This is the basis of the verse.
    1. " Jews say: 'Uzair is the son of God' and the Christians say: 'The Messiah, son of God'. Such is their saying with their mouths, they imitate the infidels saying earlier. Allah has cursed them, how are they to turn? "(Surat al-Tawbah: 30)
    2. "Sesungguhnya been disbelievers are those who said: "Verily, Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary", when the Messiah (himself) said: "O Children of Israel, worship Allah my Lord and your Lord." Surely those who ascribe (something to) Allah, then surely Allah forbid him Paradise, and his place is hell, it is not there for people unjust helpers.. "(Surat al-Maidah: 72)Even today all Christians are contemptuously called Nasranis in the Middle East by the Arabs. In Kerala also, after the Arabs gave the derogatory name 'Nasranis' to Christians, Brahmins and Nairs also used that word in a derogatory and insulting manner till the arrival of colonial powers. When the Portuguese and the British educated these hapless Christians and appointed them as soldiers, businessmen and planters, Christians ascended to top position making Brahmins and Nairs inferiors.