The Apostle of India: Post VII - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Saint Thomas of India

Many Western scholars initially rejected the tradition of Saint Thomas’s evangelisation of India as pure legend as there is no direct evidence to support the claim. Saint Thomas Christians usually retorted by asking Western Christians to show the hard evidence that Saint Peter went to Rome! Their point is that the emphasis placed on a lack of direct evidence as well as a predilection to scepticism blinded them to the actual documented history that does exist and thus paradoxically shows their deep ignorance of the world of Saint Thomas’s time.

Father Henri Hosten SJ in his magnum opus Antiquities from San Thoma and Mylapore compiled more research on this subject than any other modern scholar. Many were amazed to find that the question of Saint Thomas’s coming to India was very much a live historical theory.

The Saint Thomas Christians have a full ancient historical understanding of the Apostle’s evangelisation and this has been reinforced through the practice of oral histories that form part of the sociological framework of the caste system. As each caste has a very subtle position in the society this is strengthened through epic historical narratives of how they came to occupy this position and how they achieved the  rights and privileges they enjoy (itihasa-puranas). This is undergirded by sophisticated narrative genealogies (vamshavalis). As well as the oral tradition of bardic song, they also possessed hard evidence in the form of copper plates given by the Kings and rulers that outline their place and privileges in society.

The Malankara tradition says that Saint Thomas came to Kodungallur (Cranganore) or Mahadevapattanam. It was known to the rest of the world as Muziris. This port provided trade to the West by means of the predictable monsoon winds that would blow ships across the Arabian ocean during certain months and then blow them back again a few months later.  This provided direct access to Alexandria and Aden with easy access up the Indus to Taxila/ Gandhara, as well as Ormuz and Seleucia-Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. If you hugged the coastlines and braved the Straits of Malacca you could also use the port to trade with imperial China in the east.

The older external Persian or Syriac version of this story stress that the Apostle came overland and arrived in the Indo-Parthian north and that he later went south. Both versions share basically the same story about a king who commissions a royal palace to be built for him by the Apostle and the martyrdom in Myapore.

The earliest source of the story of Saint Thomas in India is found in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas of an unknown provenance and originally written in an  unknown language (that is we do not which language the original was written in and not that it was written by aliens from another world who used some hitherto unknown tongue). The oldest surviving manuscripts date it to at least the third or fourth century but contextual details and content make it quite possible that it was written in the second century. Thus the Acts of Thomas is the oldest surviving account left by a Christian community beyond the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire.

The Acts not only link Saint Thomas to India but also to the Babylonian congregations in Edessa (the capital of the small principality of Osrhoene squashed between the Roman and Persian Empires). From Edessa come further elaborations on the story including the Agbar legend of Judas Thomas, their own version of The Acts, as well as famous hymns by Saint Ephrem (Emphraem) of Edessa. Later versions of The Acts were copied in Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Greek and Latin.

The story tells how the Apostles in the Upper Room divided the world into regions for them to go an evangelise. Saint Thomas receives India and is not at all happy and refuses to go. His brother Apostles pray for him to repent and go and their pray is answered when that night Jesus appears in a dream and directly asks him to go. He grumbles, giving many Jonahish excuses why he can’t go but eventually consents. As the dream is happening an Indian envoy arrives from the south with orders from King Gundaphar, an Indo-Parthian ruling an area of what is now the Punjab and Afghanistan, to bring back a skilled merchant to build him a royal palace. Jesus himself goes to greet the merchant and giving his credentials as a carpenter sells him his servant Thomas for twenty pieces of silver and even writes out a bill of sale. He then fetches Saint Thomas and gives him to the merchant who, after ascertaining if Jesus really is his Lord and Master, takes him as his slave and boards a ship to sail for the East. Several romantic adventures follow before they reach India.

When he reaches the court of King Gundaphar (Gondaphorus, Gondophares) he is given a huge treasure and told to have the new royal palace ready before he returns from a lengthy pilgrimage. The Apostle Thomas is horrified by the social inequality that he finds in the kingdom with the wealthy having little or no care for the poor and destitute. So in rebellion against the opulence of the powerful he distributes the entire treasure to the poorest and most oppressed to alleviate their suffering. He spends his time teaching the ‘Good News’, healing the sick, casting out demons and proclaiming the New God. When the king returns and asks to see his new palace Saint Thomas tells him that it has been built and that it awaits him in heaven. Not surprisingly, the king orders him to be executed. That evening the king’s brother Gad dies and on entering heaven beholds the magnificence of the ‘royal palace’ that Saint Thomas had built for his brother. He then requests a boon that he might come back to life just to inform his brother what he has seen and he is given it. When the king hears the news from his dead brother he calls off the execution, and converts to Christianity as well as his whole court. His new converts receive anointing with oil (called the ‘seal’), baptism (called the ‘added seal’) and communion (called ‘bread and wine’). The ordination of deacons and priests quickly follows.

Rubens - Martydom of Saint Thomas

The Acts of Thomas records further adventures after he leaves the court to travel across India but most of the rest of the book deals with his martyrdom at Mylapore (or Mailapur which is now a suburb of Madras which is now called Chennai). Owing to the conversion of many prominent women in the court of the king, including the queen, which disrupts the marital relations of the king and his royal officials, Brahmins are sent to kill Saint Thomas with a trident spear. His body is then buried on Thomas Mount outside the city.

Much of the Acts of Thomas has a romantic epic quality that is obviously of questionable historical accuracy. However the general story line is surprisingly possible. Scholars such as Farquhar, Medlycott (later of Westminster), Dahlmann and Mingana make such an argument. From numismatic and archaeological discoveries we now know that there was a king named Gundaphar (spelled G0ndophares in Greek),  that he had a brother Gad, and that he did indeed reign over a large Indo-Parthian kingdom. The kingdom lasted from at least the year 19AD to 55AD before northern Kushana forces destroyed it. This was only discovered in the last 200 years when a huge cache of coins were found bearing his name. 

Gondophares 1st c

Much of the supporting evidence for the Saint Thomas tradition relies upon internal sources in south India. These consist of: carefully preserved oral sages; literary texts; genealogies; epigraphic and numismatic date on stone and copper plates; coins of copper silver and gold; and archaeological remains. Six ancient stone crosses that seem to date to the 2nd century can be found at: Quilon; Niranam; Kotamamgalam; Kottukkayal (Paravur); Chayal; and Palayur.

The indigenous narrative tell the story of Saint Thomas: landing on the small island of Malankara or on the coastal side of Malabar; living there for many years; sailing to Mylapore before going to China; returning to Malabar and settling at Kodungallur where he strengthened the original seven congregations he founded when he first came; training leaders from the high-caste families; and then departing back to Mylapore where he was martyred by Brahmin for refusing to participate in worship of the goddess Kali.

The Thomma Parvam is the earliest record (supposedly 48 generations earlier than the first written version of 1601). It is still sung at special occasions such as weddings among Saint Thomas Christians. The song relates how Saint Thomas arrived in December of the year 52, converted Jews at Kodungallur, how the king allowed his nephew to be ordained a kattanar (priest) before the Apostle went to Quilon where he baptised 1,400 people and set up a cross. Afterwards he went to the Chola Rajas in Mylapore where the same story of the building of the royal place and the raising of the king’s dead brother found in the Acts of Thomas is recounted.  When he was out walking from his hermitage on Little Mount he encountered Brahmins processing the goddess Kali to a scared grove. Upon refusing to worship her and the subsequent mysterious fire that destroyed the grove he was martyred.

Saint Thomas - 13th c Armenian

The best known poetic version of the story gives a complicated demographic and social breakdown (varnashramadharma) of the hereditary castes of the early Thomas Christians: 6,850 Brahmins; 2,800 Kshatriyas; 3,750 Vaishiyas; 4,250 Shudras; and Dalits (untouchables) and Adivasis (aboriginals) are not mentioned at all. The lists go further in mentioning exactly how many miracles and of what kind occurred.

Other oral traditions, copper plates, stone inscriptions and palm leaf manuscripts (many still in the hands of hereditary Nasrani families) give a myriad of details about travels, and the places visited or lived at by Saint Thomas. From these immerge the clear fact that many Nasrani families and communities trace their particular conversion to the time of the Apostle, or to one of the waves of immigration of Christians to Malabar long before the arrival of the Portuguese. Many vamshvalis and puranas also claim hereditary authority even of the kattanars or metrans (bishops or elders) who descended generation after generation from uncle to sister’s son (Kerala is an area of  matriarchal descent). This hereditary ‘apostolic succession’ allowed some families to trace back the office holders up to 70 unbroken generations. The four senior Nasrani families are of Namboodiri Brahman origin who trace their conversion to the Apostle. They are the families of Sankarapuri, Pakalomattam, Kalli, and Kaliyankal. There are many more elite Christian families some of whom can back up their claims with ancient artefacts preserved by the family. Many of these artefacts extend the story of Saint Thomas’s evangelisation of India further by giving many other details left our by the Tomma Parvam such as giving the year of his martyrdom as 72AD.

So although the evidence of the Apostle's evangelisation of India is inconclusive as much of the evidence is circumstantial, the plausibility of the historical account cannot be lightly dismissed. The tradition is as firmly rooted in India as that of other early Christian tradition that also are built on shaky historical ground. So despite the many, parallel, and ancient sources not being enough to claim total acceptance of the tradition, neither is there sufficient ground amidst the numerous strands of complex circumstantial evidence to reject it out of hand. Although some of the more fanciful accretions to the story cloud the original sources this is not a reason to question those sources. The commentaries of the Apostolic age and the Patristic age are reliable enough to accept that Saint Thomas has been venerated as the Apostle of India from the earliest days of the Christian faith. The Church believes this, and historical scholarship shows it may very well be true.

Doubting Thomas

The Feast of Nineveh: Post VI - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Nineveh - That Great City

Today begins the three day Feast of Nineveh, a feast unique to the Churches of the East. His Beatitude seemed rather excited by it and kept telling me the three days would begin at the cathedral at 7am this morning.

Then I was properly informed as to what the ‘feast’ entailed – three days of fasting from food and water and chanting the psalms for eight hours a day. Feast? I think they should have left out the ‘e’. Then again maybe it is the ‘s’ they should have left out!

Fasting is one of the ancient charisms of the Church of Babylon which was dominated by ascetic monastics and thus their theology. In His Beatitude’s first doctoral thesis he describes the following days of fasting as obligatory:

  • The 25 day fast of Soobara
  • The 3 day fast of the Ninevite
  • 50 days of  Lent (Great Fast)
  • The Apostle’s Fast (50 days after Pentecost)
  • Prophet Eliyah’s Fast (50 days)
  • Saint Mary’s Fast (15 days)
  • All Wednesdays and Fridays are days of Abstinence

If you add these up you will find that there are 193 fast days in the year! Supposedly only the fifty days of Lent and the three days of the Feast of Nineveh are compulsory for the laity, although he notes that the twenty five day fast is mostly observed. I found it hard to believe that people could ‘find’ the time to take off work or other duties for such an ordeal, but sure enough, when I went this morning the cathedral was packed both inside and out. Outside seating has even been built on both sides of the church to accommodate the overflow that will be needed as more an more people join in over the next two days.

Feast of Ninevah

The Feast of the Nineveh, Baoutha d-Ninwaye in Syriac from the word meaning ‘pleading’,  occurs in the Church of the East just before lesser Lent. The faithful do not eat or drink a drop of water from midnight the evening before until 3 or 4pm the next day after the Querbana is finished. During the day from early morning until late afternoon the clergy and laity sit in the church praying and chanting the Book of Psalms. I understand from His Beatitude that technically they chant the Book of Psalms twice over, 2/3 on each day. However he has relaxed this practice in India and now they only recite the Psalms once over the three days.

The tunes used to recite the Psalms I understand are Aramaic/ Syriac and thus represent the most ancient form of church music known to the church. It derives from early synagogue worship and is a direct connection to our pre-Christian past.

Psalm Tune I

Psalm Tune II

Psalm Tune III 

The Prophet Jonah

In the 6th century, a plague inflicted the Northern regions of Nineveh and devastated the city. The populace sought the guidance of the bishop who in term looked to Holy Scripture. The story of Jonah and the great fish provided it.

In the Old Testament story God sent the prophet Jonah to warn the city of Nineveh that they must repent of their sins to avoid being destroyed:

"The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amathi, saying: “Arise and go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach in it: for the wickedness thereof is come up before me."

Jonah, trying to avoid the task set before him, fled by ship across the Mediterranean. When a violent storm rose up the crew decided that one of the passengers was responsible. Jonah pleaded guilty for attempting to flee from God so they threw him overboard where he was swallowed by a ‘great fish’ in whose belly he fasted and prayed for three days. When he was sparred by being vomited back onto dry land, the prophet went to Nineveh and preached that it would be destroyed in forty days unless it repented. For once in these tales, the king listened and he and the whole city put on sackcloth and ashes and fasted until God repented of his decision to destroy the city.

Not surprisingly the Bishop of Nineveh saw some parallels with the story and so ordered a three day fast to ask for God's forgiveness. After three days the plague ceased.

To this day, the Assyrians church observes these three days. They have been doing so for almost 1500 years. 

His Beatitude the Metropolitan: Post V - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


His Beatitude Doctor Mar Aprem

I have dealt at length with the Metropolitical Palace and the other residents of it but not with the occupant from whom it takes it’s name. His Beatitude Mar Aprem (also regularly called His Grace Doctor Mar Aprem) is the Head of the Church of the East in India and Apostolic Delegate of the Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinka IV. Mar is the title for a bishop used by Assyrian and Syrian churches.

Mar Aprem was born 1940 and raised in Trichur. He holds several degrees (BD, MTh, STM, DTh and PhD) and has studied in India, the United States, and the United Kingdom. He was ordained a Deacon in 1961, Priest 1965 and Bishop in 1968. Eight days after his consecration as Bishop he was made Metropolitan by the Catholicos-Patriarch in Bagdad. He has been the Metropolitan of All India for forty four years and is the longest serving Bishop in India.

He is the author of 71 books on ecclesiastical history, theology, travel, and seven of these are books of humour! He received the ‘Men of Achievement” award from the International Biographical Centre in Cambridge England in 1984.

This is the formal introduction that he usually gets. Below is the formal photograph you will usually see. Here he is dressed in the unmistakable, hat and long coat of an Assyrian Orthodox bishop.

Mar Aprem

To be honest I was rather expecting another self absorbed bishop fuelled by his own enlarged ego and whose mind occupied just the small world of his own ecclesiastical jurisdiction (reading this sentence makes me realise that I have been dealing with church politics for far too long!). I doubly feared in His Beatitude’s case as Bishops of the East have a reputation for being a bit self conscious and more than a bit ‘pontifical’ and serious. They also have an ancient, and well deserved reputation for being over-sensitive to slights and thus easily offended (did I hear someone whisper schism?). I did not know what to expect from a Bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East, let alone an Indian one. The only thing I had to go on was the fact that of all the photographs of the Catholicos-Patriarch I have seen I had never once seen one of him smiling (I goggled Mar Dinka IV + Smiling after writing this and did find two lovely photographs of him doing just that – mind you it was only two).

The Mar Aprem I have encountered is simply charming. He is friendly, gregarious, funny,  informal and laughs out loud regularly, especially over the absurdity of so much of what takes place in the church.  In a word he is - charismatic. He is kind of man who seems so comfortable with himself that he makes the pompous uncomfortable and even more self conscious.

Unfortunately he is also a bit of a powerhouse and never seems to stop. He is like the energizer rabbit and goes from 5am until 10pm every day with just a one hour nap. He wore me out the very first day, and he is 73 with severe diabetes (3 insulin shots a day). For example on Sunday he returned at 8pm from a day that started at 5am and included: preaching a singing a two and a half hour Querbana (you stand during the whole service) that began at 7am; presiding over a two hour Parish Anniversary day in a rural area outside the city; laying the cornerstone for a new parish building project; and attending two evening meetings at two different parishes.

Still, he is a bishop and so has a somewhat narrow focus on his own role within his own church. This is to be expected (the curse of the purple spectacles). However, unlike many Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox ecclesiastics he has a truly ecumenical spirit and is both knowledgeable and interested in other traditions.

He is also loquacious (like I would ever have hear that word applied to me). He will talk at length about a huge variety of things from history, his extensive travels (he has published 24 travelogues) to articles in the morning papers or e-mails he has just received. Interestingly though, he seems somewhat evasive when asked theological questions or in depth ecclesiastical history ones. I know that it is not because he lacks the knowledge to answer but perhaps he has been over it too many times and has therefore lost all interest.

Mar Aprem at Celebration

While writing this His Beatitude has wandered in waiting for another meeting to start. These next two photographs I just took and I think they capture his personality much better than the official ones do. 

Mar Aprem Laughing  Mar Aprem Chatting

He is a very easy man to be around, or at least if you have just met him and never heard any of his jokes before! I felt comfortable immediately.

Best thus far, however, for getting a sense of the man behind the title is this short video in which he describes to me how the notes of the sitar work. The only thing missing is that he doesn’t laugh as much as usual.

The Fractious Toddy Cat: Post IV - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Metropolitical Palace of the Church of the East

The Metropolitical Palace compound sits right off the High Road, now renamed Mar  Timotheus after a former Metropolitan, in the centre of Thrissur. It was built by the same Mar Abimalek Timotheus.  The compound includes gardens full of coconut and banana trees and well as many flowering shrubs and vines that I do not know the names of. A back gate leads to the church grounds and the tombs of the former Prelates of the church.

Garden Path

When you enter the Palace you are immediately aware you are not in a typical Indian church residence. The house is full of Assyrian Prelates in full Metropolitical or Patriarchal splendour staring solemnly down on you from the walls.

Entry Hall  Entry Hall II

The downstairs of the Palace has a dining room and rooms for meetings, secretaries including the Metropolitical secretary’s cell as well as a small permanently air conditioned room that houses the church’s famous collection an ancient Assyrian manuscripts. Upstairs is the Metropolitan’s residence, sitting room and a guest room. A wide enclosed veranda surrounds the whole second floor.

Entry to the Metropolitan's Quarters

My room is large and simple with a bed (I brought my own mosquito net) and a desk and chair. There is a bathroom off of it which has a hot water heater you can switch on. Bucket baths are the name of the game here but I am used to them since my time in Africa. There is a small gecko lizard that lives behind the commode and sticks his head out to watch me when I come in.

Guest Room

Amidst the Assyrian artefacts, paintings and photographs there are some quintessentially Indian touches such as the old portrait of the last Maharaja as a young man, the Metropolitan’s sitar in his sitting room, 

His Beatitude's Sitar

and the faded print of Ghandi and Nehru on the wall of the veranda.

Ghandi and Nehru

There is a cook, a cleaner, a driver, and a priest (Father Jacks) - the Metropolitan’s personal secretary. Father Jacks lives here. The routine of the house is like clockwork: breakfast a 8, morning tea at 10, lunch at 12, afternoon tea at 3 and dinner at 7.

Morning and afternoon tea is literally a cup of tea and a few slices of apple or segments of an orange. Dinner is very simple, some evening just a fried egg and a couple of rounds of toast. Breakfast and lunch are a different matter. I understand that His Beatitude eats simply and as an Assyrian Bishop he does not eat meat. Still the food is wonderful even though it is usually only rice and two vegetable curries for lunch.

However, breakfast is unlike anything I have ever had before. I am familiar with Indian food from my decade in Britain but these meals were always at night. I had never had an Indian breakfast. It is nothing like our breakfasts, here it is another full savoury meal. For the base there is either: puttu – cylinders of roughly pounded rice and coconuts steamed together in hollowed out bamboo; appam – soft, cupped rice pancakes that are spongy in the centre;  iddiappams – a rice based vermicelli; iddlis – circular, steamed rice cakes; or vada – fried chickpea flour doughnuts. These are eaten with: egg masala – spicy, onion based gravy; kadala curry – a spicy, dark brown curry made with ginger, chick peas, and pepper; sambar – a chilli sour broth; or chatni – a tangy paste made with ground coconut and chopped green chillies. Some morning there is also a bowl of fresh coconut milk to mix in with the main savoury. Almost everything for breakfast is HOT! Breakfast comes with a pot of thick milky chai to reduce the flare. To end there are fresh, small, sweet bananas from the garden. Quite simply the ‘simple’ monastic breakfast fare  in the house is the best breakfast I have ever had.   

Breakfast Appams and Chatni

Although the house is filled with fascinating things I am afraid I find the most interesting thing in the house, besides the Metropolitan himself, is the resident that lives on the third floor. The ceilings are high in the British style and so, if there is ever a need, the huge space above the second floor beneath the roof can be made into a usable third floor, it even already has windows. This has not been done and so it is really just a huge attic with high ceilings. At night you can hear its occupant racing about as it leaps from the attic onto the tiled roof and launches itself onto the coconut trees. It also tends to growl to itself an awful lot.

It is, as the locals call it in Malayalam, a ‘Wood’ or ‘Tree Dog’ or even better known as a Toddy Cat. We would call it an Asian Palm Civet. 

Asian Palm Civet - Toddy Cat  Asian Palm Civet

As a foreigner, I am charmed knowing an exotic animal is leaping about and growling just above my ceiling night after night. However I must admit that since it has taken to sleeping above my bathroom ceiling and pulling back bits of the ceiling boards so it can peer in at me and growl the novelty has started to wear off . The psychological pressure of having a lizard peek out at me from behind the commode and a civet staring at me from a hole in the ceiling while growling is beginning to give me a case of shy bladder.

Early this morning at 3am when I went to vacate my bladder the civet was particularly annoyed at me for having disturbing it. So as I stood there relieving myself it relieved itself on me! So I took a very early morning bucket bath washing Asian Palm Civet urine out of my hair. It continued to growl at me the whole time. It was around that time that my whole ‘Toddy Cat’ fascination came to an end.

An interesting factoid - the most expensive coffee in the world is made by feeding coffee berries to this creature and then harvesting the beans afterwards and (thankfully) washing and roasting them. It is called Kopi Luwak. A pound of Kopi Luwak can go for $600 and for wild Kopi Luwak expect to pay closer to $3000. See, all you need to be rich is a hungry ‘Toddy Cat’, fresh coffee berries, a bucket of water, and a great deal of resolve.


Vadakkunnathan Krishnan Runs Amok: Post III - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Vadakkumnathan Temple, Thrissur

The town in Kerala where I am staying is called Thrissur. Although there has been a Shivite (of the Hindu god Shiva) temple here for a thousand years the modern town really started to expand only a couple of hundred years when the Maharaja of Cochin brought, because of their trade expertise, 52 East Syrian Christian families to Thrissur to settle to the east and south of the temple. Now the town has grown into one of the main towns in Kerala but its ancient origins as a temple area is still obvious as the entire town literally flows around it (the large area in the middle of the Google map below is the temple and its grounds).

Thrissur from the Air

Vadakkumnathan Temple complex is best known for its annual Pooram festival which celebrates over one 36 hour period in May obeisance to Lord Shiva. The main ritual involves two opposing lines of caparisoned elephants, the middle chief elephant carrying the temple god, who compete with one another to give the best displays. More accurately it is the three young Brahmin priests on the back of each elephant that compete. They carry emblems symbolising royalty: silver handled whisks of yak hair; circular peacock feather fans; and silk umbrellas fringed with silver pendants.

Chief Elephant Bearing the Sacred Temple Image at Pooram

Thrissur Pooram Elephants

Thrissur PooramElephants II


All the while Vanchavadyah of drums and horns proceed the elephants competing against the other orchestra.

Vanchavadyah Orchestra

However, what is more impressive than either the elephants, the Brahmins, the musicians, the 36 hour length of the ritual, or the fact that it takes place at the hottest time of the year just before the monsoons, is the number of people who attend. 300,000 people fill the temple precincts and converge around and between the lines of elephants!

Crowds at Pooram

They are even there when the elephants are approaching one another.

Vadakumnathan Temple Elephants for Pooram

The town also boasts the Vadakka Madham Brahmaswam Vedic chanting school where Brahmin priests learn from a young age to chant the 3000 year old Rig Veda. I do not know where the elephants are trained but they must learn the patience of Job to endure Pooram ever year. Of course ever now and then the stress does get to them. In 2010 an elephant named Vadakkunnathan Krishnan ran amok for a few hours when he went out on the town without his mahout.

Vadakkunnathan Krishnan Runs Amok

I love the fact that elephants here have names and that they are referred to by them in the news. If you did not realise you were in an alien land before you would when you saw this, as I did in last Tuesday morning’s local newspaper:

Local Newspaper Item - City Journal

Well enough about elephants. I have given a brief description of Kerala and now the city where I am staying. In my next post I will introduce you to the Metropolitical Palace and its residents. Only then will I begin to write about my actual experiences since I have been here. I hope you make it that far. 

The Land of the Cheras: Post II - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Theyyam - Possesion by the Gods

As I begin these posts I need to give some background information as to where I am and what in the world I am doing here (questions that have been going through my head several times a day). The next couple of posts will therefore act as something of an orientation.

Kerala on a Map of India

To begin with I am in Kerala, which National Geographic magazine describes as one of the “ten paradises of the world”. The land lies between the Western Ghats mountain range and the Malabar Coast along the Arabian Sea.

Map of Kerala

It has been populated since 5000BC and has been exporting spices since at least 3000BC, when it is first mentioned in Sumerian records. The trade continued with the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians(records exist from the reign of Ptolemy VII in 166BC), most of the Middle East and most importantly for my studies - East Syrians . Jews arrived in Kerala in 573BC, were reinforced by the Babylonian Diaspora of 587BC, and settled here and Christians arrived here in the year 52AD. Muslims arrived soon after Islam’s birth and the second oldest intact Mosque in the world is here.

Europe’s  relationship with Kerala began in 1498 when Vasco Da Gama arrived in Calicut and then founded a Portuguese colony on Goa. The first Viceroy of Portuguese India was installed only two years later. The attempt by Portuguese Roman Catholic Archbishops to convert the East Syrian Christians of Kerala for the next two hundred years effectively fractured the unified church into several denominations and created tensions that still survive today. The Dutch provided some relief when they defeated the Portuguese in 1741 but this was short lived as the British East India Company soon arrived and ousted the Dutch.

His Highness Padmanabha Dasa Sri Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma Maharaja GCSI, GCIE, Maharaja of Travancore 1912– 1991

The modern history of Kerala is intertwined with the aftermath of Tipu Sultan’s attempt to wipe out the British and persecute the Christians in two of the four Anglo Mysore Wars in the late 18th century. Tipu Sultan finally gave Malabar to the British leaving the two Kingdoms of Travancore and Kochi as independent Monarchies under Maharajas. This state of affairs existed until Independence when all three Malayalam speaking areas came together in what would be modern day Kerala.

Kerala is considered the most progressive of all Indian States with: the highest literacy rate (96%); highest life expectancy; lowest infant mortality rate; lowest poverty rate; lowest corruption rate; 98% of all youth have a school less than 2km from their homes (94% have school less than 1km); and best health care system. Some believe that the recent demographics of Kerala, especially it decreasing birth rate, show that Kerala is rapidly becoming an area that the term ‘developing’ can no longer be applied to. It is also the first place in the world to democratically elect a Communist government.

The bio-diversity of Kerala is also famous with a quarter of all of India’s 10,000 plants and trees being found here. It is most famous for its proliferation of coconut trees, pepper, cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Tea plantations in the Western Ghats produce 23% of India’s tea. The animal life here is too numerous to mention but I will name the most famous: Indian elephants, Bengal tigers, Indian leopards, king cobras, pythons, and mugger crocodiles (which all make an appearance in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book).


Kerala Art Forms


The other thing that Kerala is famous  for is its rich and ancient cultural art forms that are still popular today. Koodiyattom in a 2000 year old Sanskrit form of theatre which UNESCO has listed as "a “Masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”. Other traditional art forms include:


Bharatanatyam; Bharatanatyam Dancer

Vattappattu; Vattappattu

Ottanthulal; Ottanthulal


and Kerala’s ancient indigenous martial art form Kalaripayattu.Kalaripayattu

Most interesting however is, by far, Theyyam. Theyyam however is not an art form but rather an ancient religious practice where Dalit (formerly called untouchables) mediums are possessed by a God. This form of divine possession only happens for a couple of months a year and is not easy to find. The Theyyam ritual, which goes on all night long, inverses the old caste system as God becomes one with an untouchable and the purity bound Brahmin priests must touch the feet of an untouchable in order to commune with God and receive his or her blessing. The physical stamina necessary and the elaborate makeup and costumes for Theyyam is legendary and often cuts short  the medium's life. William Dalrymple in his book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India included an entire chapter on this tradition where he interviews a Theyyam medium.

Theyyam Headdress

So this is the part of the world where I am presently staying. The riches of its people, culture, history, fauna and flora is staggering. I am already aware that during my time here I will experience only the most minuscule portion of it and this is only one small state of India! There are times when one becomes painfully aware of the shortness of life not because of the suffering of humanity or the steady advance of time but rather because of the sheer abundance of life that one only has time to catch a fleeting glimpse of, let alone understand what you have seen. 

Onappottan dress for Onam

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