At the Gate of ‘The Gate of All India’: Post I - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Metropolitical Palace of the Church of the East - The Gate of the Gate of All India

The Scholarship of Saint Basil the Great was established by the late Henry Hill OGS, Bishop of the Diocese of Ontario of the Anglican Church of Canada, to encourage closer contacts between the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Assyrian Church of the East and the Anglican Church of Canada by facilitating exchanges and visits focused on spiritual practice, pastoral work and study. Members of the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East are invited to visit an Anglican community in Canada for up to one year; while members of the Anglican Church of Canada spend three to four months living overseas in an Oriental Orthodox or Assyrian Church of the East community from which they have received an invitation. Since the establishment of the scholarship in 1991, six scholarships have been awarded for exchanges to Canada for Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Church members; while four Anglican priests have travelled overseas to Armenia, Syria and Lebanon, and India. As a recipient of the scholarship, Archdeacon Simonton is visiting India for a period of four months, between January and April, during which he will spend time with the Chaldean Syrian Church and the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church.

From the Letter of General Introduction for the recipient of the 2012 Saint Basil the Great Scholarship by The Most Rev’d Fred J. Hiltz, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada

Posting from Thrissur (Trichur)

After an exhausting plane flight through Quatar I arrived safely in Cochin (Kochi) in the south western Indian state of Kerala. I was a bit taken aback when I reached the customs bureau and saw three Malankara Bishops resplendent in red and black with another four priests huddled together eagerly awaiting an arrivee. I remembered Our Lord’s direction to always take the lowest place in case someone more important comes along and so assumed the delegation was not for me and skirted around them. Good move on my part as a young Malankara cleric came flowing and billowing into view soon thereafter and was quickly engulfed by the bishops and hurried off through customs. I learned later that a new Metropolitan had just been sent for enthronement by His Holiness Zakka Iwas I, Patriarch of Antioch in Damascus, for the Syrian Jacobite Church. Presumably that was the cleric they were waiting for.

All seemed somewhat normal inside the airport: it was 3:30 in the morning, human traffic was low, and the atmosphere subdued. Then I saw the final customs clearance desk that led out onto the street. Looking over the top of the customs officer I could see a literal sea of humanity rising and breaking against the edge of the airport. I was temporarily frozen in place, then put a brave face on it as if I had a clue what I was doing and simply plunged in.

Everyone says that one’s first taste of India in a shock to the system. It is the most populated country in the world. For comparisons sake the United States has one person per square kilometre and China has four. India has thirty. Kerala has 819! The sheer number of people, the traffic, noise, and the assault of smells could easily have made me panic. Instead I pretended to know where I was going (always the best move in situations like this) and casually tried to pick out a likely candidate that might be the priest who was supposed to meet me. There were probably fifty people holding up signs with the names of passengers written on them. I quickly scanned the crowd and did not see my name anywhere, then I noticed a rather forlorn looking man (sans cassock!) holding a sign that he had allowed to become folded in half between his hands so that the only letter showing was ‘A’. I strolled over, reached out and gently pulled the paper open. Sure enough – ‘A’is for Archdeacon!

Nasrani Shrine I Nasrani Shrine II

The drive to Thrissur only took about an hour through the darkness of early morning. I was astounded by the huge number of churches. We must have passed thirty not to mention the numerous three tiered roadside Christian shrines. Each shrine has a statue on each of three levels: a Saint such as St George or a local saint on the ground level, Our Lady on the middle, and Our Lord on the highest platform. Often the ground level is a small oratory. These are not small shrines but sometimes thirty to forty feet high. I was pleased to have these sacred images constantly in my sight as the way we were driving made me quite sure that my last sight on earth would be that of the Blessed Mother rocketing forward to greet me at full throttle. The priest sent to collect me had a deeper faith than mine and calmly dozen off and on throughout the journey.

Once we left the main roads the speed and weaving in and out of lanes around trucks, rickshaws, country people carrying huge loads on their heads only increased and produced over time a somewhat numbing effect. The most surreal moment came when careening around a corner we swerved suddenly to avoid a huge elephant placidly ambling along with its mahout carrying a bundle of palm leaves in its trunk (I learned later that this was its food for the day). The driver made a kind of acknowledging hand gesture that seemed to be the equivalent of ‘hey bro’ to the elephant before speeding off again.

Kerelan Elephant

As the sun rose we pulled through the gate of the Metropolitical Palace of the Church of the East. The Church of the East, the most ancient of all the non Greek or Latin Churches, has been called by many names: The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East; The Persian, Babylonian or Mesopotamian Church; East Syrian Church; Surayeh Syrians; and the Patriarchate of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (from the twin cities in Persia that lay on opposite sides of the river Tigris that was the centre of the Catholicate for centuries). Most commonly these Christians are referred to as Nestorians. These are the Christians who were outside the Roman Empire who went East instead of West and settled in the Persian Empire and engaged in missionary work in Tibet, China, Mongolia, Japan, Turkestan, Ceylon, and India. They are the Church mentioned in the 1st Epistle of Peter 5:13 when the Apostle visited this Christian community as “The elect church which is in Babylon salutes you: and Mark my son”. They parted company with the rest of Christendom at the Council of Ephesus in 431 because of Christological differences from the rest of the Council Fathers.

However, the Church of the Malabar coast of the Malankara peoples is as old as even the ancient church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The Church in India traces its origins to the Apostolic Age and universally claim descent from Saint Thomas the Apostle himself. The church of the Nasrani Mappila, as the St Thomas Christians are also known, was founded in the year 52AD. This church lasted intact for 1600 years until the coming of European hegemony in the form of the Roman Catholic Portuguese Padroado (overseas patronage of churches).

The story of the Saint Thomas Christians is fascinating, complex, confusing and often convoluted. It is enough for the moment to say that the last four hundred years have seen this community fracture under the onslaught of Western Christianity into numerous jurisdictions under Rome, Antioch and even Canterbury. However there remains a remnant, a small core of about 35,000 East Syrian Christians, who have through often complicated ecclesiastical manoeuvring survived the massive and overwhelming Roman force of the Syro Malabar Eastern Rite Roman Catholics, The Syro Malankara Eastern Rite Roman Catholics, The Latin Rite Roman Catholics, the two West Syrian Churches, and the Reformed West Syrian Churches of the Anglican Communion. This is the first church I have come to visit.

The Metropolitan Bishop who leads it represents the original stream of Saint Thomas Christianity. He is the last Metropolitan in India who has a direct link with India's first 1600 year Christian past as he still owes allegiance to the Church of the East and her Catholicose, His Holiness Mar Dinka IV. Although he does not use all the titles, by tradition and custom (Timothy I 8th c) he is rightfully entitled to, this man is ‘The Metropolitical Bishop of the Throne of Saint Thomas and the Whole Christian Church of India’. More romantic is his other unused ancient title: ‘The Gate of All India’. So I begin my four month sabbatical living with the Saint Thomas Christians in India here, literally, at the gate of ‘The Gate of All India’.

The Gate of the Gate of All India