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Saint Thomas, the Apostle of India

Reproduction of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio, from Google Arts and Culture. Image Credits: Caravaggio via Wikimedia Commons.
Saint Thomas by Caravaggio. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

India has a thriving community of Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Eastern Orthodox faith stems from the Apostolic Church, brought by Saint Thomas the Apostle to India. Orthodox Christians have confronted certain challenges from the Latin West.

As per the book Acts of Thomas, written in Edessa sometime in the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, on his first mission, St. Thomas the Apostle reached the capital of the Indo-Parthian king, Gondophares. Gondophares ruled Afghanistan and Punjab—with Taxila as the capital—along with the trader Abbanes. On his second mission, he traveled to a kingdom in southern India ruled by a first-century dynasty.

According to tradition, St. Thomas evangelized this area and then crossed over to the Coromandel Coast of southeastern India. He was martyred while carrying out his mission at Mylapore near Madras. Mylapore is now a neighborhood in the central part of the city of Chennai, India. There, the Gothic-style Santhome Cathedral has been built over the resting place of Saint Thomas.

Saint Thomas’ actual body was later moved to Edessa in the fourth century. From there, in 1141, the relics were transferred to Chios, a Greek island. In 1257, they eventually ended up in Ortona, Italy. The bone of the right hand of St. Thomas was brought to India with permission from the Vatican.

It is now being conserved at the Marthoma Pontifical Shrine—also known as St. Thomas Church—in Azhikode in Kodungallur. Nowadays, the church is a major pilgrimage center. It is believed that St. Thomas first landed in Kodungallur on a ship in the year 52 AD. According to Christian tradition, which is followed by the Syrian Christians of Kerala in India, these areas constitute the path of St. Thomas.

The Doubting Thomas 

Saint Thomas the Apostle of India by Peter Paul Rubens. Image Credits: Peter Paul Rubens via Wikimedia Commons.
Saint Thomas the Apostle of India by Peter Paul Rubens. Image Credits: Peter Paul Rubens via Wikimedia Commons.

The description of Doubting Thomas is found in the Holy Bible in John 20:24-29 and reads as follows:

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Apostle of Indians

Saint Thomas Christian Cross. Image Credits: Jogytmathew via Wikimedia Commons.
Saint Thomas Christian Cross. Image Credits: Jogytmathew via Wikimedia Commons.

The apostles came together in Jerusalem and divided the areas of the known world among themselves. Each apostle would travel to the land where the Lord had requested he go. Thus it was that Saint Thomas was assigned to India. However, he was initially unwilling to go to India.

“How can I, who am a Hebrew, travel there and, preach the Gospel to the Indians?” he wondered.

While he was considering this, the Saviour appeared to him in the night and said to him: “Fear not, Thomas, go to India, and preach the Word there, for my Spirit is with you.”

To this, he responded, “Send me somewhere else, wherever thou wilt, for I will not go to India.”

Then, in his dream, Abbanes (also referred to as Habban), a merchant, arrived. He had received instructions from King Gondophares (also called Gundafor) to buy a carpenter and bring him to India. Jesus saw him around noon in the market and asked, “Dost thou wish to buy a carpenter? I have a slave who is a carpenter, and I wish to sell him.”

He pointed to Thomas in the distance, and Abbanes agreed to purchase him for three pounds of silver. Thus, the Savior wrote a bill of sale, which read as follows: “I, Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter, confirm that I have sold my slave, named Judas, to you, Habban, merchant of Gundafor, king of the Indians.”

When the bill of sale was ready, the Saviour took Judas (also referred to as Thomas) and led him to Abbanes. When the merchant saw him, he inquired of Thomas, “Is this man your Master?”

The apostle answered that this was indeed the case, and Abbanes informed him that he had just bought him. So ended the dream. The following morning, during his prayers, Thomas decided that he would go to India as had been requested of him, as he understood it was Jesus’ plan for him.

Saint Thomas in Kerala

Mar Thoma Church Kodungallur India. Image Credits: Sujithvv via Wikimedia Commons.
Mar Thoma Church in Kodungallur, India. Image Credits: Sujithvv via Wikimedia Commons.

Saint Thomas began his mission in the west of the Malabar Coast of India, where, as legend has it, he stepped ashore for the first time in southern India. It was the year 52 AD in Maliankara of Kodungallur at what is now Fort Cranganore—built by the Portuguese in 1523—when Thomas first arrived.

The day of his landing was celebrated for centuries afterwards with a procession of boats and singing of songs. Ezhara Pallikal, meaning seven royal churches, were founded by St. Thomas the Apostle in the first century. They were the seven major churches or Christian communities of Saint Thomas Christians.

The churches were built at Maliankara in Kodungallur, Kollam, Niranam, Nilackal, Kokkamangalam, Kottakavu, Palayoor, and Thiruvithamkode. These are in present day Kanyakumari. The Marthoma Pontifical Shrine in Kodungallur is considered to be the first one to be established by St. Thomas upon his arrival in the area in 52 AD. 

Martyrdom of Saint Thomas

Saint Thomas’s Tomb in India. Image Credits: Mathen Paytappilly Palakkapilly via Wikimedia Commons.
Saint Thomas’s Tomb in India. Image Credits: Mathen Paytappilly Palakkapilly via Wikimedia Commons.

Saint Thomas became a martyr in 72 AD. There are different theories regarding his death. One of these holds that a king ordered a high priest to stab him for converting multitudes of people to the Christian faith. The traditions of Malabar, Coromandel, and the Persian Church held that Thomas the Apostle died near the ancient town of Mylapore.

After he was martyred at Little Mount (Chinnamala), St. Thomas was buried in Mylapore, where his body was brought and buried inside the church he had built. A pot with soil and the lance with which he was killed were also both buried in his tomb. In the shrine is also a small bone fragment of Saint Thomas.

The first time the tomb was ever opened was by Raja Mahadevan, the king of Mylapore, sometime before the year 200 A.D. He opened the tomb to get the pot of soil buried with the disciple in order to cure his ailing son. The merchant Khabin opened the tomb for a second time around 232 A.D. to transfer the Apostle’s relics to Edessa of Syria.

The Portuguese likewise entered the tomb for a third time to renovate the church around the year 1523. This was said to be after witnesses reported seeing light coming out of the tomb. In 2004, an underground chapel was constructed below the tomb.

Catholic Orthodox tension in India

Of the thirty-seven different existing Apostolic denominations, nine are strictly Western in nature, if we consider Greece and Cyprus to be a part of the West, and  twenty-eight are Asian or African. The Orthodox Church claims to be the true successor of all these Apostolic Churches, including the Italian Churches, which relied on Greek as their language of worship during the era in question here.

The Orthodox Church is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant but regards itself as the true and faithful successor of the ancient Apostolic Church, while the Roman Catholic Church is regarded as a denomination that broke off and went astray from the true tradition of the Christian Church.

Orthodox Christianity has over a hundred million followers in Greece, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, countries of the former Yugoslavia, Western Europe, the United States, and Australia, among other places. The Indian Orthodox Church is an Asian-African Apostolic Church.

This Church was established in India in the very first century by St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. It is one of the forty or so ancient Apostolic Churches of the world.

In the 16th century, it came in contact with the Roman Catholic Church through Portuguese colonialism. Following a century of contact and interactions, the Roman Catholic Church took control of the St. Thomas Christian Church. The Synod of Diamper (Udayamperoor Synod), held at Udayemperoor—otherwise known as Diamper—in 1599, played the decisive role in this regard.

The Synod was a diocesan council that determined the rules and regulations for the ancient Saint Thomas Christians. Thus, the synod laid a firm foundation for all the issues which arose later on in this church. For about fifty-four years thereafter, the St. Thomas Christians remained under Rome’s occupation.

In 1653, through an oath, the St. Thomas Christians’ Church as a whole overthrew their enforced subjugation to Roman Catholicism and resolved to restore their freedom as a Church of India. They hoped to revive their Oriental Church heritage and indigenous characteristics.

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