An Awkward Thing to Mention or Omnia muntantur nos et mutamur in illus: Post XXII – Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians in India

Scholarship of Saint Basil the Great 2012

Sir James Princep - Brahmi Philologist

For the few of you who have been wading through this travel blog you will by now have realised that most of the stories associated with the Nasrani Christians lies more in the realm of legend than history. One West Syrian bishop (whose see was is in North America put it bluntly - “You need to realise that all of it is made up!” He meant that almost none of the ‘history’ of the church is actually historical because we have almost no documentation before the coming of the Portuguese. Roughly (as I have spent a great deal of time in other posts outlining the history of the Nasrani), we know that there were Christians here, that they had cultural and ecclesiastical ties to the East Syrian church, were over time given caste privileges and a few other bits of concrete information. 

Well at least he said it first. The fact is that almost all the documentation about the ancient church in India comes from the records of visitors such as Greeks and Romans or the ecclesiastical records of the Catholicos in Babylon (and these are few in number). There are the copper plates given by the Maharajas to the Nasrani which list the special privileges the ‘caste’ enjoyed, but besides this is little internal documentation. One of the professors at the Old Seminary in Kottayam makes this a central foundational point when teaching the history of the church on the Malabar coast.

The churches in Kerala were built of teak and bamboo that at best last 300 years and not of stone. They thus disappeared. There are no ancient Christian church buildings in India! For some reason no one wants to say this out loud. The guidebooks, and the faithful refer to churches, like the seven churches of Saint Thomas for example, using the foundation date. It is only after you finally arrive and see the building that you realise that it is at best Portuguese and at worst a few years old. The oldest church foundation in India, for example, was just ‘Redone’ (read ‘Brand New’) within the last year. Even whilst standing there looking straight at it with the parish priest and a couple of the trustees, they tell you straight to your face that it dates from the 1st century. Yet nothing remains of the Portuguese structure of just 500 years ago let alone before that. And yet even though it is new it is designed in an European Portuguese style!

North Parvur  or Kottakavu -Exterior

North Parvur or Kottakavu - Interior

To put it more plainly – when you ask for supporting evidence for the claims that are put forth only anecdotal or belief statements are produced. If you dig deeper there is nothing there. It is all, of course, deeply disappointing. I had hoped to find an ancient church. Instead I have found churches that stem from a post Portuguese period. The coming of the Portuguese, as I have and will outline further, destabilised the indigenous church to such an extent that almost nothing remains of the pre Portuguese tradition except a few fragments and what we can at best, discern. We can not, for example, compare the East Syriac liturgy and customs of the pre Portuguese church to the liturgy and customs of the Church of the East at the same time to see how similar or dissimilar they were. As there are no documents, we are also unable to know exactly how the church was managed or ruled.

Many, many churches claim decent from the Saint Thomas Christian tradition and yet none of them can support their claim beyond that of tradition or more recent developments. I have wondered several times if that is one of the reasons that these churches place so much emphasis on the outcome of secular court cases. It is extraordinary how often the judgment of a lawsuit is given to backup an ecclesiastical position. 

Very, very briefly, here is the outline. The East Syrian tradition is claimed by the Chaldean Syrian Church and yet it is clear, as I have already shown, that its re-found allegiance with the Persian Patriarchate is 19th century and they had already been Latinised to some extent before re-inventing themselves. The Roman Catholic Syro-Malabar church also claims East Syrian decent and yet it is clear that they lost almost all traces of it as they were systematically Latinised. Many of their churches are not only Portuguese in Architecture and decoration but also are filled with statues of Western European Saints – many of them counter-reformation (remember images are anathema to East Syrian Christians)! There is no veil across the sanctuary or any physical sign whatsoever of Syrian influence. Many Syro-Malabar churches are also reinventing themselves and adding curtains, removing images, and in some places turning back to face East for the Querbana. Their claim seems to lie primarily in their use of liturgy which, as I have been led to believe, has also been heavily Latinised. For example they keep the feast of the Immaculate Conception which, if you have even a rough understanding of East Syrian Mariology, is simply bizarre.

The West Syrian tradition dates from the coming of a West Syrian bishop in the 18th century. This Malankara tradition in Southern India is alien regardless of the fact that it now consists of most of those churches that descend from the Koonen Cross Oath. Even the Mar Thoma  Metropolitans only date from the 17th century. To an ecclesiastical historian this is all very recent. 

However, the question as to why the Indians did not keep records is a mystery – the point is simply that they didn’t and never have, as the professor from Kottayam states, been inclined to do so. It explains why so much of Indian history that is considered ‘central’ today did not come from the Indians themselves. Michael Woods in his The Story of India, delicately explore this phenomenon without asking the difficult question of why.

Pasupati Harrappan Seal 

For example the great Harappan civilisation, one of the greatest ancient civilisation in the world with some cities of  perhaps a quarter of a million people dotted all along the Indus Valley, was discovered by the British soldier and explorer of the East India Company, James Lewis (pseudonym - Charles Masson) in 1827. It was not until the latter part of the Raj in the 1920s that excavation began. No one knew that there was a vast ancient civilisation in India before let alone one of the most ancient.

The caves of Ajanta, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, were ‘discovered’ on the 28th of April 1819 by the British officer John Smith of the 28th Cavalry whilst tiger hunting. He looked up and wondered what the carvings he could see were and went to investigate.

The ancient lost script of the Maurian Empire was translated in Calcutta at the Asiatic Society by the English philologist Sir James Princepts (whose image you can find at the beginning of this blog)who was intrigued by the numerous carved pillars around India such as the one in Delhi and wanted to know what they said.

Ashoka Pillar in Delhi

Using a carved boulder and the intuition that it contained some version of Sanskrit he deciphered the Brahmi language, translated the pillars and revealed one of the most illustrious reigns of all of human history – that of the Emperor Ashoka. The Dharmachakra (Wheel of the Law) of Asoka, as he was a Buddhist, is the central emblem in the middle of the flag of India.

Indian Flag

The Indian Army uses the three lions that adorn the top of Ashoka’s pillar at Sarnath. Ashoka’s Wheel at Konark and the Pillar at Sarnath are located in UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Ashoka's Sarnath Pillar 

Another great chunk of Indian history, the rule of the Kushan Empire, was only fully uncovered through the work of a French philologist Andre Maricq in 1957 who began work to decipher the Bactrian text.

The origins of both the southern and the northern Indians (as well as the peoples of Europe) was also revealed by a Welshman. The migration of the Aryan peoples out of central Asia through the Khyber pass was first illuminated by the origins of Sanskrit itself. A Welsh judge, Sir William Jones (the father of Indology), so admired the Indian civilisation that in 1784 he founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta to its history.

Sir William Jones Father of Indology

He convinced a Brahmin scholar to teach him Sanskrit and his discovery changed the entire way that Indians and Europeans view their history. He gave a lecture to the learned society on February 2nd 1786 when he pointed out the vast similarities between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and even non romantic European languages such as Lithuanian (the romantic languages descended from Latin would of course bear marked similarities).  He suggested that all had to have a common origin. This idea of a common origin of all ‘Indo-European’ languages, peoples, and history proved to be right.    Founder of the Asiatic SocietyIt is modern genetics that has pointed to the probability that the South Indian Dravidian peoples are the descendants of the first wave out of Africa. Thus all non Sub-Saharan Africans, are descended from the Dravidian Indians. This can be called the ‘Out of India’ or ‘Mother India’ theory. This was hinted at through linguistic research, taking it for granted that speech was a later development in man, that revealed that the only analogous pattern to the ancient Brahmanical non linguistic chants of the South Indian priests is not a language but rather birdsong.

The holiest site of the Buddhist religion, the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya (the place of the Lord Buddha’s enlightenment), was rescued from dereliction and abandonment and restored not by Buddhists by rather the British Government. General Sir Alexander Cunningham, KCIE, CSI  was so appalled by the local ignorance about and the state of the ancient Buddhist sites that he not only restored the the temple at Bodh Gaya but also excavated and protected the great Buddhist sites of Sarnath (where the Dharmachakra was set in motion in the Deer Park by the Lord Buddha’s first sermon), Barhut (now in the museum at Calcutta), and the Great Stupa of the Emperor Ashoka at Sanchi built to house the Lord Buddha’s relics. Mahabodhi, Sarnath and Sanchi are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The building of the Indian Railway system by the British allowed, for the first time, easy travel across the sub-continent. More important, the unification of all the almost 200 princely states and the area of the entire sub-continent into one political unity by the Raj created the very concept of India as one land, people, and country.

You take all of this together, and you come to the very unsettling conclusion that a large part of the modern understanding of ‘Indian’ in term of language, origin, great chunks of her history, and the concept of her territorial boundaries is a recent development heavily engendered by European, notably British, contributions. Of course this is only disturbing in term of  political correctness and not historically. England’s language, religion, and infrastructure, for example, comes from its conquest by the Roman Empire and, unlike India, little if any of her original languages, cultures or religions remains. Anyone who studies history knows that this is how the concept of a nation and a people develops and changes. Still you tend to get into trouble when you say it out loud. For example, it is playing with fire to make reference to the anthropological theory of and research into original Dravidian inhabitants of the Americas that existed before the Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait ice bridge.

To point out the historical fact that the English or the Scots (or the Germans or the French, etc, etc) are a modern ‘made up’ people tends to annoy people. And yet each of these peoples are made up of numerous other tribes of different linguistic and racial origin that only after much time coalesced into something that resembles the culture and people we know today. Another way of saying this is that there are no ‘pure breeds’ in humanity. The fact that these groups continue to ‘reinvent’ themselves (a Devolved Scotland for example is certainly a different Scotland than the one created by Sir Walter Scott) is to be expected.

Yet the desire to find a fixed point of identification is extraordinarily strong in people. Pointing out that everything is always in flux tends to make people insecure and frightened (see column “RCMP Sergeant Baltej Singh Dhillon a Proper Symbol of Canada or The Epiphany Continues to Illumine the Wasteland” - February 2011 ). However some find this insight liberating and it pleases me these people find the constant change and flow of life and culture, although difficult to adapt to, ultimately something to be thankful for. This concept is a central tenant in the Buddhist doctrine of the impermanence of things and is basic to many Eastern cultures such as Japanese (see column “All Flesh is Grass or Wabi-sabi” – March 2007).

A Japanese haiku, by Basho (1644-1694) puts it like this:

Even in Kyoto -

hearing the cuckoo’s cry -

I long for Kyoto

(translation by Robert Hass) OR


Bird of time -

In Kyoto, pines

for Kyoto

(translation Lucien Stryk)

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475 BC) remind us:

“Everything changes and nothing remains still... and... you cannot step twice into the same stream" or as it is more commonly quoted “you can’t step in the same river twice.”

The Kamakura short story An Account of My Hut by Kamo no Chomei (1185-1333) famously begins:

“The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long. So, too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world.” (Translation - Chambers)

Ovid (43BC – 17AD) in the Metamorphosis reminds us:

“Omnia muntantur, nihil interit” or “Everything changes, nothing perishes”

“Omnia muntantur nos et mutamur in illus” is the more common expression. “Everything changes and we change with them.”


Ashoka Chakra at Konark