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Saint Thomas the Apostle of India

Saint Thomas is one of the twelve apostles of Jesus.  He is also known as “doubting Thomas” as he did not initially believe in the resurrection of Jesus.  According to Christian mythology he is supposed to have visited India in 52 AD.  Catholic tradition also states that he was killed by a Brahmin and buried in Mylapore (Saint Thomas Mount).

As a Malayalee I have always been fascinated by the mythology surrounding Saint Thomas.  If the story is true then it would put one of the founding fathers of Christianity in India centuries before there was an agreement on a uniform Christian doctrine which was achieved only after the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

In India there is little room for debate as far as the validity of this story is concerned.  This story is part of our school curriculum.  It is mentioned in official government documents and books.  It is part of the story of India and the history of Kerala.  It is used as an example to show that Christianity was in India long before it was in Europe.  But the question is whether the stories surrounding Saint Thomas in India are real or mythical just like the stories of many other gods, saints and angels.

In September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI made a speech in which he stated that Saint Thomas evangelized Syria and Persia and went to Western India.  Christianity according to him then reached South India.  This statement completely contradicts the story of Saint Thomas (if he did not visit India then whose body was buried at Saint Thomas Mount?).  Many Catholics in India were very unhappy with the Pope’s statements.  Due to the furor the Vatican “amended” the Pope’s published statements!

The story of Saint Thomas in India puts the Vatican in a tough spot.  Catholics for the most part believe that Jesus Christ is the only son of god.  However, the main source of information for Saint Thomas comes from the “The Acts of Thomas” and the “Gospel of Thomas” both of which indicate that Saint Thomas was the twin brother of Jesus Christ. This obviously contradicts traditional Catholic beliefs.

Both the Acts of Thomas and the Gospel of Thomas are considered Gnostic (not part of the Bible).  Today very few educational institutions outside of India including Catholic schools teach the story of Saint Thomas visiting India as a historical fact.

Once you start reading about Saint Thomas and look at the “evidences” in support of his story one thing clearly stands out.  There are a lot of Christian references to Saint Thomas in India from sources in the Middle East.  But there is very little or no corroborating evidence or reference to such a historical event in Indian history before the Europeans arrived in India in the 15th century first as traders and later as conquerors.

There is no evidence of the “Seven and a Half Churches” (Ezharappallikal) established by Saint Thomas in Kerala (the first Church built in Kerala and in India is the beautiful Saint Francis Church in Kochi built during the year 1503 which still stands today).  There are attempts to label the Saint Francis Church just as the first “European church in India” (which it is) and not as the first church in India.

The story about the Saints death in Mylapore at the hands of a Brahmin is controversial to say the least.  It should be noted that this story is not part of the original tradition and is not found in the Act of Thomas or the Gospel of Thomas.  It clearly came about after the Portuguese arrived in Chennai (Madras).  In fact the Portuguese version is very different from what is described in the Gnostic texts about the circumstances surrounding the death of Saint Thomas.

There is no consensus among the Christian community as to where Saint Thomas died.  There are two tombs for Saint Thomas in Mylapore alone.  In all there are six tombs for the Saint in India and many others outside of India including in countries like Brazil, China (and Tibet), Japan and Germany.  How did Saint Thomas visit Brazil and die there when the South American continent was not discovered until the 14th century? It is interesting to note that Brazil was also a Portuguese colony.  Were the Portuguese spreading this myth everywhere they went?

So who are the Syrian Christians (Nazarenes) of Kerala?  Please read Part 2 of this article.

Related posts:

  1. Syrian Christians of Kerala
  2. High Literacy Rate in Kerala Not Because of Catholic Church
  3. Ravi Zacharias: Christian Missionary From India
  4. India Should Not Arrest the Avatar of Sai Baba
  5. Gay Prostitution Scandal Rocks Vatican

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Category: Culture & Religion

Comments (15)

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  1. very interesting post…people in high place will rewrite history if it helps…my uncle has written about Syrian Christians too…I have read the book and so am interested in your next post.

    • Hari says:

      Thank you Nalini. This is a subject that I have been interested in for a very long period of time. In my opinion this is not about a certain community and their beliefs. It is about finding the truth about the history of India and Kerala. In this case I find that the history has been misrepresented.

  2. IS says:

    This is a very fine article. Thank you for it. But beware: there is a violent and fanatical opposition to any attempt to find out the truth about the historicity of St. Thomas in India.

    St. Paul recorded Christian congregations in Spain, Greece, and Rome in the 40s AD. So the story that Christianity arrived in India before Europe is just another self-promoting Indian Christian tale. Even if Thomas brought Christianity to India, it would be in 52 AD and not earlier.

    The whole legend unravels as soon as the Acts of Thomas is de-constructed and the exact meaning of the geographical term “India” is understood correctly. All ancient geographers used the term “India” as a synonym for Asia.

    • Hari says:

      Welcome and thank you for your feedback. I am to an extent aware of this apposition and also agree with the definition of the term “India” in the ancient world. After reading a lot about this issue I am convinced that Saint Thomas is a mythical person and he did not visit what we call today “India”.

  3. Quite a controversial post for a malankara orthdodox christian like me…!!!

    I saw another Dan Brown here…!!!

    • Hari says:

      As they say Rinzu Susan “ignorance is bliss”. Keep on laughing out loud :)

  4. don’t question the thousands of christians based in india and abroad…their faith is strong,unmoved and based on scriptures which arent available on the internet for publicity seekrs like u.. and yes it can never ever be shaken by a dan brown or a hari like you…

    lollllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll

    • Hari says:

      Rinzu,

      Don’t hide behind your religion and make accusations that are not true. I did not question the faith of Christians of the world. Expressing solidarity with the rest of the Christian community in the world is fine. But it is equally important to know whether a fraud has been committed on the people of India (that you are part of) by a colonial power. I somehow get the feeling that it is not that important to you.

      As I noted in my article even the current Pope (Pope Benedict) does not believe in the Saint Thomas story as told in India. So I guess you know about the existence of some scriptures (that is not on the internet) that even the Pope is not aware of. I think that you are reading too many Dan Brown books!!

      You are free to believe in whatever tall tale you want to and laugh at people who question it but that does not mean that this story will go away.

      “First they make fun of you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win” – Gandhi.

  5. sj says:

    Hari,

    There is no hard evidence that st thomas visited india . it may as well be a myth .

    But to tell there was no church before the portugese is wrong . The syrian liturgy was used here well before the portugese . The syrian church of india had relationship with persian churches and other oriental churches for centuries before .Actually what portugese have started is the catholic church affiliated to pope. If u are intrested i will give more details of older churches of kerala

    • Hari says:

      SJ,

      There is no evidence to suggest that Saint Thomas visited India.

      The Acts of Thomas indicates that this mythical saint visited Syria, Parthia (Persia) and Gandhara (Pakistan/Afghanistan). This was confirmed by the Pope. In a speech on September 27, 2006 Pope Benedict XVI said the following “Thomas first evangelized Syria and Persia and then penetrated as far as western India, from where Christianity also reached South India”. This contradicts the Syrian Christian myth that Saint Thomas arrived in Kerala in 52 AD and started converting upper caste Hindus (Christianity as we know today as a religion did not exist in 52 AD and Brahminical religions did not have a hold on Kerala in 52 AD). So what religion was Saint Thomas spreading in Syria, Parthia and Gandhara?

      Some historians suggest that Christian “communities” were present in Kerala only after the 11th and 12th centuries (we do not know whether these Christians were Syrian Christians). The earliest Syriac texts found in Kerala only date back to the late 15th century which is almost a hundred years after the Portuguese arrived in Kerala.

  6. Alexander says:

    I find your article unsubstantiated, and purely based on imagination and not facts.

    Here are a few facts other than references of India in the Act of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi archives.

    In 522 CE, Cosmas Indicopleustes a Greek sailor, visited the Malabar Coast in South India. He is the first traveller to mention Syrian Christians in India. He wrote, “In the Island of Taprobane, there is a church of the Christians, and clerks and faithful. Likewise at Malé where the pepper grows; and in the town of Kalliana there is also a bishop consecrated in Persia.” (Reference: Travancore Manual, page 248).

    In 510 AD Udayamperoor (Diamper) church built by St.Thomas Christians and Knanaya people.

    In 774 AD Emperor Veera Raghava gives copperplate to Iravikorthan

    In 824 AD Beginning of Kollavarsham (Malayalam Era).First Tharissapalli sasanam (Copper plate) by Stanu Ravi Gupta Perumaal to Nazranies.

    In 849 AD Deed given by King Ayann Adikal Thiruvadikal of Venad, to Easow-data-veeran (Tharisappalli copper plate) that grants 72 royal privileges of the Nazranies.

    In 1293 AD Marco Polo, a Venetian traveler, visited the tomb of St. Thomas (at Mylapore) and documented this in his books.

    These are all verifiable facts and well documented historical facts. The plates are available today in Kerala for anybody to see. The documentation of Cosmas Indicopleustes and Marco Polo are considered significant contribution to the world’s history.

    Please know that like any other religion in India, Syrian Chistianism is native to India and is mighty to its own believers.

    • Hari says:

      Alexander,

      The list of “facts” that you presented here are commonly found in websites that promote this mythology including Wikipedia. Most of these “facts” cannot be traced back.

      Your quote “In the Island of Taprobane, there is a church of the Christians, and clerks and faithful. Likewise at Malé where the pepper grows; and in the town of Kalliana there is also a bishop consecrated in Persia.” (Reference: Travancore Manual, page 248)”. I guess you found this from Wikipedia.

      You state that this vague quote about a Christian traveler (Cosmas) who may or may not have traveled to Taprobane, Malé and Kalliana (are these places in India?) in the 5th century is found in the Travancore Manual (a British era document written around 1906). How can a document written about 100 years ago be used as evidence for events that happened in the 5th century?

      The 510, 774, 824 and 849 AD evidences are very similar in nature to the Travancore Manual evidence. These events were never recorded by anyone of that period (Indian or foreign) but are found in documents well after the 16th and 17th centuries when we all know that Europeans were in India and actively tinkering with Indian history and promoting their religion and culture over everybody else.

      Regarding the copper plates, the very same Travancore Manual says the following (Page 244): “The copper plate which is in old Tamil character with some Grantha characters is preserved in the Kottayam Seminary. The accuracy of the date 744 AD is very doubtful“.

      Do you know where the Travancore Manual got all this information about Cosmas and the copper plates from? The Travancore Manual refers to a book called “The Syrian Church in India” written in the 1870′s by a Christian missionary called George Milne! Nice.

      I like to travel and read about travelers. Marco Polo is one of my favorites. Most historians do not believe that Marco Polo visited India. So the story of Marco Polo visiting the tomb of Saint Thomas is a fake. In fact significant doubts are being raised about the extent of Marco Polo’s travels in the literary and historical circles. It is also important to keep in mind that his famous book II Milione is an account of his fathers and uncles journey to China and not his own!.

      Although Marco Polo lived in the 12th and 13th centuries you should also know that no authoritative version of Marco Polo’s book, II Milione, is available. It is well known that II Milione was “embellished” and “adapted” into various versions based on individual needs!

      So all these “verifiable facts” are not really verifiable.

  7. IS says:

    Alexander, what is your point?

    None of the details you have given prove that Thomas came to South India.

    Historically there is no record of a Christian community in Malabar prior to the arrival of Thomas of Cana and Bishop Joseph in 345 CE.

    The records and dates you list are accepted and pertain to Thomas of Cana and latter migrations of Syrian Christians in the 8th and 9th centuries.

    Even if Marco Polo went to China, a story now disputed by Oxford and Cambridge scholars, he did not visit the Coromandel coast. Marco got his travel stories from Syrian Christian and Muslim merchants who visited Constantinople to trade.

    The legend of Thomas founded the Christian church in Malabar is just a pious folk tale. It has no historically value whatsoever.

    What can be inferred from the legend is that Syrian Christians identified Thomas of Cana with the Apostle Thomas, who had indeed founded their church at Fars (Persia), and made him come to India and be their founder.

    St. Paul testifies that there were Christian communities in Spain and Greece by 40 CE. So this puts paid to the Syrian Christian fantasy that their church is earlier than the European churches.

    The date for Thomas’s arrival in India, said to be 52 CE, first appeared on the wall of San Thome Cathedral in the 18th century. It is an invented date made by vested interests.

    Lastly, India was a synonym for Asia in ancient times and its reference in the Acts of Thomas, a moral fable that admonishes Christians to be celibate even in marriage and identifies Thomas as the look-alike twin brother of Jesus, does not refer to suncontinental India as we know it today.

    There is more. If you are interested go to http://apostlethomasindia.wordpress.com and http://ishwarsharan.wordpress.com

  8. Alexander says:

    If you feel that copper plates which are carbon dated are fake and you cannot believe your eyes on the interpretation of its content, then there is no point arguing with you. Why don’t you visit Kottayam’s big churches, take photos of these plates which are displayed in the mueseums there and post your refutal based on the translations and your interpretations?

    Also, Why don’t you post on this web site the Travancore manual’s page 248 instead of just saying hollow that you have seen it and the contents are not there? Scan it and post it with your refutals for the benefit of all readers.

    If I apply the same yardsticks that you have, on any of your own beliefs about the culture, religion, epics, kingdoms of India or the Cheran dynasties – None of these can be scientifically proven, we just believe the historians who documented them. Nothing can be scientifically proven before the year 1850 , including your religion, culture, ways, beliefs, or even the existance of your ancestors before 150 years in a civiliized land like India.

    How can you prove the Aryan or Dravidian or even Cheran theory? Or how can you prove even remotely the epic tales which leads to Onam festival, or for that matter the existance and ways of the Brahmins as known to the world today. For example, there are theories that Brahmins were heavy meat eaters at one time! There are theories that Hindusim completely had no following for many centuries when Buddhism was at its peak.

    I would rather believe the origins of my religion in Kerala to be through that of St. Thomas than believe the volumes of epics and dramas written about other religions and mythical origins of Kerala. I think it is easier for me to believe and my faith stands well fed when the facts of near realism.

    • Hari says:

      Alexander,

      You can criticize all the religions of India as much as you want but it would not make any difference. I have already conceded in this article and others that all religions are man made. This includes Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism.

      The copper plates in question have not been carbon dated. The plates do not prove anything. It is simply a plate that has some Tamil inscriptions in it. I do not have to go on a grand tour or take photographs to know this. We live in the age of the internet remember! The reason I waited a few days before responding to your comment is because I wanted to research as much as possible about the Travancore Manual and the other texts that the manual is referring to. Fortunately most of the manual is available online. Google it and read it for yourself.

      You state that “I would rather believe the origins of my religion in Kerala to be through that of St. Thomas than believe the volumes of epics and dramas written about other religions and mythical origins of Kerala”. I do not want to believe. I want to know!

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