The Nasranis are an ethnic people, and a single community. As a community with common cultural heritage and cultural tradition, they refer to themselves as Nasranis. However, as a religious group, they refer to themselves as Mar Thoma Khristianis or in English as Saint Thomas Christians, based on their religious tradition flowing from the early Church of St.Thomas Christians or Saint Thomas tradition of Christianity.
According to tradition, Saint Thomas, whose missionary activities in South India spanned a couple of decades from AD 52 to 72, established seven churches in Malabar. These first century churches, according to tradition, were located, from north to south, at: Palayoor near Guruvayoor/Kunnankulam, Kodungalloor (believed to be the ancient Muziris of Pliny, and the Periplus, on the north bank of Periyar River today), Paravur on the south side of Periyar, Gokkamangalam or Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Chayal or Nilakkal (the only inland church) and the Lakes or Kaayals, and finally Kollam. The visit of the Apostle Thomas to these places and to Mylapore on the East coast of India can be read in the Ramban Song of Thomas Ramban, set into 'moc', 1500.
See also : Seven Churches of Saint Thomas
However, from a religious angle, the Nasrani's of today belong to various denominations as a result of a series of developments including Portuguese persecution (a landmark split leading to an public Oath known as Coonen Cross Oath) , doctrines and missionary zeal influence (split of Marthoma Church (1845) and St. Thomas Evangelical Church (1962) ), Patriarch/Catholicos issue (split of Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church (1912) ).
Throughout Kerala, one can find Christian families that claim their descent from ancestors who were baptized by Apostle Thomas. St. Thomas Christians were classified into the caste system according to their professions, in accordance with the Hindu tradition, with special privileges for trade granted by the benevolent kings who ruled the area. After the eighth century when Hindu Kingdoms came to sway, Christians were expected to strictly abide by stringent rules pertaining to caste and religion. This became a matter of survival. This is why St. Thomas Christians had such a strong sense of caste and tradition, being the oldest order of Christianity in India. The Archdeacon was the head of the Church, and Palliyogams (Parish Councils) were in charge of temporal affairs. They had a liturgy-centered life with days of fasting and abstinence. Their devotion to the Mar Thoma Cross was absolute. Their churches were modelled after Jewish synagogues.
In short, the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala had blended well with the ecclesiastical world of the Eastern Churches and with the changing socio-cultural environment of their homeland. Thus, the Malabar Church was Hindu in culture, Christian in religion, and Judeo-Syro-Oriental in worship.
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.
The lure of spices attracted traders from the Middle East and Europe to the many trading ports — Calicut, Cranganore, Cochin, Alleppey and Quilon — long before the time of Christ.
According to tradition, it was on a trading vessel plying between Alexandria and the Malabar coast that St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Cranganore in AD 52. Saint Thomas the Apostle is said to have begun preaching the gospel to the already existing Jewish settlers in the Malabar coast and other local peoples.
St. Thomas, it is believed, baptized also the Magi who adored the Infant Jesus and who were probably from Assyria or Persia. The Apostle preached also in other parts of India. In the year 72 he was martyred at Little Mount a little distance from St. Thomas Mount, and was buried at Mylapore, near the modern city of Madras.
If the tradition be critically discussed it must be admitted that several ancient writers mention India as the scene of St. Thomas’ labours. Thus St. Ephraem, the Syrian (A.D. 300-378) in a hymn about the relics of St.Thomas at Edessa depicts Satan exclaiming, “The Apostle whom I killed in India comes to meet me in Edessa.” St. Gregory Nazianzen,(329-389), in a homily says; “What! were not the Apostles foreigners? Granting that Judea was the country of Peter, what had Saul to do with the Gentiles, Luke with Achaia, Andrew with Epirus, Thomas with India, Mark with Italy? St. Ambrose (340-397) writes “When the Lord Jesus said to the Apostles, go and teach all nations, even the kingdoms that had been shut off by the barbaric mountains lay open to them as India to Thomas, as Persia to Mathew.”
Numerous other passages could be cited from various old liturgies and martyroligies which refer to the work of St. Thomas in India,and these passages at least show that the tradition that St. Thomas died in India was widespread among the early churches.
There are many early Christian writings, which belong to centuries immediately following the first Ecumenical Council of 325 exist about St.Thomas mission.
Gist of Testimony : The Apostles cast lots as to where they should go, and to Thomas, twin brother of Jesus, fell India. Thomas was taken to king Gondophares as an architect and carpenter by Habban. The journey to India is described in detail.After a long residence in the court he ordained leaders for the Church, and left in a chariot for the kingdom of Mazdei. There, after performing many miracles, he dies a martyr.
Gist of testimony : “After the death of the Apostles there were Guides and Rulers in the Churches…..They again at their deaths also committed and delivered to their disciples after them everything which they had received from the Apostles;…(also what) Judas Thomas (had written) from India”.
“India and all its own countries, and those bordering on it, even to the farther sea, received the Apostle’s hand of Priesthood from Judas Thomas, who was Guide and Ruler in the Church which he built and ministered there”. In what follows “the whole Persia of the Assyrians and Medes, and of the countries round about Babylon…. even to the borders of the Indians and even to the country of Gog and Magog” are said to have received the Apostles’ Hand of Priesthood from Aggaeus the disciple of Addaeus
Gist of Testimony : He is the first known writer to record the casting of lots by the Apostles. Origen original work has been lost; but his statement about Parthia falling to Thomas has been preserved by Eusebius. “Origen, in the third chapter of his Commentary on Genesis, says that, according to tradition, Thomas’s allotted field of labour was Parthia”.
Gist of Testimony : Quoting Origen, Eusebius says: “When the holy Apostles and disciples of our Saviour were scattered over all the world, Thomas, so the tradition has it, obtained as his portion Parthia….”
Gist of Testimony : Many devotional hymns composed by St. Ephraem, bear witness to the Edessan Church’s strong conviction concerning St. Thomas’s Indian Apostolate. There the devil speaks of St. Thomas as “the Apostle I slew in India”. Also “The merchant brought the bones” to Edessa.
In another hymn apostrophising St. Thomas we read of “The bones the merchant hath brought”. “In his several journeyings to India, And thence on his return, All riches, which there he found, Dirt in his eyes he did repute when to thy sacred bones compared”. In yet another hymn Ephrem speaks of the mission of Thomas “The earth darkened with sacrifices’ fumes to illuminate”. “A land of people dark fell to thy lot”, “a tainted land Thomas has purified”; “India’s dark night” was “flooded with light” by Thomas.
Gist of Testimony : “What? were not the Apostles strangers amidst the many nations and countries over which they spread themselves?…Peter indeed may have belonged to Judea; but what had Paul in common with the gentiles, Luke with Achaia, Andrew with Epirus, John with Ephesus, Thomas with India, Mark with Italy?”
Gist of Testimony : “This admitted of the Apostles being sent without delay according to the saying of our Lord Jesus… Even those Kingdoms which were shut out by rugged mountains became accessible to them, as India to Thomas, Persia to Mathew..”
St. Jerome testimony : “He (Christ) dwelt in all places: with Thomas in India, Peter at Rome, with Paul in Illyricum.”
St. Gaudentius testimony : “John at Sebastena, Thomas among the Indians, Andrew and Luke at the city of Patras are found to have closed their careers.”
St. Gregory of Tours testimony : “Thomas the Apostle, according to the narrative of his martyrdom is stated to have suffered in India. His holy remains (corpus), after a long interval of time, were removed to the city of Edessa in Syria and there interred. In that part of India where they first rested, stand a monastery and a church of striking dimensions, elaborately adorned and designed. This Theodore, who had been to the place, narrated to us.’
St. Isidore of Seville testimony : “This Thomas preached the Gospel of Christ to the Parthians, the Medes, the Persians, the Hyrcanians and the Bactrians, and to the Indians of the Oriental region and penetrating the innermost regions and sealing his preaching by his passion he died transfixed with a lance at Calamina,a city of India, and there was buried with honour”.
Doctrine of the Apostles states that, “India and all its countries . . . received the Apostle’s hand of priesthood from Judas Thomas….” There are no documentary proof early primates for Church of St. Thomas Christians. From an early period the Church of St. Thomas Christians came in to a life long relationship with the Church of Persia, which was also established by St. Thomas the apostle according to early Christian writings. Primate or Metropolitan of Persia consecrated bishops for the Indian Church, this Church was also brought indirectly under the control of Seleucia.
Church of the East traces its origins to the See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, said to be founded by Saint Thomas the Apostle. Other founding figures are Saint Mari and Saint Addai as evidenced in the Doctrine of Addai and the Holy Qurbana of Addai and Mari. This is the original Christian church in what was once Parthia: eastern Iraq and Iran. Geographically it stretched in the medieval period to China and India. The See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon developing within the Persian Empire, at the east of the Christian world, rapidly took a different course from other Eastern Christians.
The First Council of Nicaea, held in Nicaea in Bithynia (present-day İznik in Turkey), convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 325, was the first Ecumenical council of the Christian Church, and most significantly resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. It is documented that Mar John, the Bishop of Great India attended the council.The prelate signs himself as “John the Persian [presiding over] the Churches in the whole of Persia and Great India.” We have no proofs that Bishop John was the actual reigning prelate of Great India, and it is very improbable that a bishop could exercise direct and immediate jurisdiction over two such distant bishoprics as Persia and India. The signature of the bishop also merely implies the ultimate control he held over the Indian Church.
Some centuries following, the Persian Church suffered severe persecutions. The persecuted Christians and even Bishops, at least on two occasions, sought an asylum in Malabar.
In 825 AD, the arrival of two bishops are documented , Mar Sapor and Mar Prodh. Le Quien says that “these bishops were Chaldaeans and had come to Quilon soon after its foundation. They were men illustrious for their sanctity, and their memory was held sacred in the Malabar Church. They constructed many churches and, during their lifetime, the Christian religion flourished especially in the kingdom of Diamper.”
Prior to the Portuguese arrival in India in 1498, See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon provided "Prelates" to the Saint Thomas Christians in India. This practise continued even after the arrival Portuguese till the Synod of Diamper (held in Udayamperur) at 1599.
There are many accounts of missionary activities before the arrival of Portuguese in and around Malabar.John of Monte Corvino, was a Franciscan sent to China to become prelate of Peking about the year l307.He traveled from Persia and moved down by sea to India, in 1291, to the Madras region or “Country of St. Thomas” .There he preached for thirteen months and baptized about one hundred persons. From there Monte Corvino wrote home, in December 1291 (or 1292).That is one of the earliest noteworthy account of the Coromandel coast furnished by any Western European. Traveling by sea from Mailapur, he reached China in 1294, appearing in the capital “Cambaliech” (now Beijing)
Odoric of Pordenone who arrived in India in 1321. He visited Malabar, touching at Pandarani (20 m. north of Calicut), at Cranganore, and at Kulam or Quilon, proceeding thence, apparently, to Ceylon and to the shrine of St. Thomas at Mailapur near Madras. He writes he had found the place where Thomas was buried.
Father Jordanus, a Dominican, followed in 1321-22. He reported to Rome, apparently from somewhere on the west coast of India, that he had given Christian burial to four martyred monks. Jordanus, between 1324 and 1328 (if not earlier), probably visited Kulam and selected it as the best centre for his future work; it would also appear that he revisited Europe about 1328, passing through Persia, and perhaps touching at the great Crimean port of Soidaia or Sudak. He was appointed a bishop in 1328 and nominated by Pope John XXII in his bull Venerabili Fratri Jordano to the see of Columbum or Kulam (Quilon) on 21 August 1329. This diocese was the first in the whole of the Indies, with juristriction over modern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and Sri Lanka.
Either before going out to Malabar as bishop, or during a later visit to the west, Jordanus probably wrote his Mirabilia, which from internal evidence can only be fixed within the period 1329-1338; in this work he furnished the best account of Indian regions, products, climate, manners, customs, fauna and flori given by any European in the Middle Ages - superior even to Marco Polo's. In his triple division of the Indies, India Major comprises the shorelands from Malabar to Cochin China; while India Minor stretches from Sind (or perhaps from Baluchistan) to Malabar; and India Tertia (evidently dominated by African conceptions in his mind) includes a vast undefined coast-region west of Baluchistan, reaching into the neighborhood of, but not including, Ethiopia and Prester John's domain.
In 1347, Giovanni de' Marignolli visited the shrine of St Thomas near the modern Madras, and then proceeded to what he calls the kingdom of Saba, and identifies with the Sheba of Scripture, but which seems from various particulars to have been Java. Taking ship again for Malabar on his way to Europe, he encountered great storms.
Another prominent Indian traveler was Joseph, priest over Cranganore. He journeyed to Babylon in 1490 and then sailed to Europe and visited Portugal, Rome, and Venice before returning to India. He helped to write a book about his travels titled The Travels of Joseph the Indian which was widely disseminated across Europe.
During the subsequent period, in 1552, a split occurred within the Church of the East. Part of it joined Rome, so that besides the Catholicosate of the East another, Chaldaean Patriarchate was founded, headed by the Patriarch Mar John Sulaqa (1553-1555). Both claim to be the rightful heir to the East Syrian tradition. It is very difficult to see the precise influence of this schism on the Church of Malabar as there was always overtones to Rome in earlier centuries. Apparently, both parties sent bishops to India.
The last East Syrian Metropolitan before the schism, Mar Jacob (1504-1552), died in 1552. Catholicos Simeon VII Denkha sent a prelate to India, in the person of Mar Abraham, who was later to be the last Syrian Metropolitan of Malabar, after having gone over to the Chaldaean side. It is not known when he arrived in Malabar, but he must have been there already by 1556. Approximately at the same time, Chaldaean Patriarch Abdisho IV (1555-1567), the successor of John Sulaqa (murdered in 1555), sent the brother of John, Mar Joseph, to Malabar as a Chaldaean bishop; although consecrated in 1555 or 1556, Mar Joseph could not reach India before the end of 1556, nor Malabar before 1558. He was accompanied by another Chaldaean bishop, Mar Eliah.
This development in the history of St. Thomas Christians happened at the advent of the Portuguese colonization of the Malabar Coast.
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 Kunan Kurishu Satyam (Bent Cross Oath). Under the leadership of archdeacon Thoma a section 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 indigenous Metropolitan of Kerala, under the name Mar Thoma I.
Later, in 1665, an Antiochean Syriac Orthodox bishop called Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel arrived in India and the group under the leadership of the archdeacon Mar Thoma welcomed him. The Bishop Mar Gregorios was sent by the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Patriarch in a Dutch ship, this movement 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.
This was the starting point of division among the Syrian Christians in Kerala who till then were one Church. 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", and form the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church within the Syriac Orthodox Church. Those who continued with East Syrian theological and liturgical tradition and stayed faithful to the Synod of Diamper and the latinization imposed by it are known as the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in communion with the Catholic Church.
St. Thomas Christians by this process got divided in to East Syrians and West Syrians.
In 1772 the West Syrians under the leadership of Kattumangattu Abraham Mar Koorilose, Metropolitan of Malankara, formed the Malabar Independent Syrian Church (Thozhiyur Sabha).
In 1874 a section of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church from Thrissur came in to communion with Patriarch of the Church of the East in Qochanis as a result of schism followed after the arrival of Bishop Rocos (1861 ) Mar Elias Melus (1874) sent by the Patriarch of Chaldean. They follow the East Syrian tradition and are known as Chaldean Syrian Church.
However, in 1912 due to attempts by the Antiochean Patriarch to gain temporal powers over the Malankara Church, there was another split in the West Syrian community when a section declared itself an autocephalous church and announced the re-establishment of the ancient Catholicosate of the East in India. This was not accepted by those who remained loyal to the Patriarch. The two sides were reconciled in 1958 but again differences developed in 1975. Today the West Syrian community is divided into Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (in Oriental Orthodox Communion, autocephalous), Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church (in Oriental Orthodox Communion, under Antioch).
In 1926 a section of West Syrians under the leadership of Mar Ivanios came into communion with the Catholic Church, retaining all of the Church’s rites, Liturgy, and autonomy. They are known as Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. In 1961 , saw the break away of St. Thomas Evangelical Church from the Marthoma Church .
|West Syriac (Antiochian)||East Syriac (Chaldean)|
|Oriental Orthodox||Independent||Independent Orthodox||Eastern Catholic||Assyrian Church of the East|
|Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church (Syriac Orthodox Church)||Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (Indian Orthodox Church)||Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church (Mar Thoma Church)||Malabar Independent Syrian Church (Thozhiyoor Church)||Syro-Malankara Catholic Church||Syro-Malabar Catholic Church||Chaldean Syrian Church|
|Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church||2,000,000 *|
|Church of South India||3,800,000 @|
|Malankara (Indian) Orthodox Syrian Church||2,000,000 *|
|Mar Thoma Church||1,000,000|
|Chaldean Syrian Church||30,000|
|Malabar Independent Syrian Church||10,000|
|St. Thomas Evangelical Church||10,000|
@ This is the world population of CSI [|Church of South India]
It may be stated that the data as tabulated above are in direct conflict with India's official census data which place the total Christian population in Kerala at 6.06 million in the year 2001. Accordingly, the population of St Thomas Christians in Kerala (who form 70%-75% of the total Christian population in the State as suggested above) may be in the region of 4.2 to 4.5 million. (Please also see the article Demographics of Kerala in Wikipedia.)