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The history of the Kerala Church

Jesus Christ has commissioned the Apostles to bring the good news to the ends of the world, as 11nd Vatican council recalled: “The mystery of the holy Church is manifest in her very foundation, for the Lord Jesus inaugurated her by preaching the good news, that is, coming of God’s kingdom, which for centuries, had been promised in the scripture” (LG: 5). Through the ministry of Thomas the Apostle Christ founded the Church in Kerala by which the love of Jesus has been experienced by His people.

After St. Thomas’s time, the Kerala Church was under the care of the Chaldean Church. By the 15th century, the Portuguese came to Kerala and created much confusion and provoked tensions that led to several divisions in the Church of Kerala. In 1599 a council called the Synod of Diamper took place, which was one of the most important events in the history of the Kerala Church.

The first chapter of this dissertation will address the background of the Diamper synod.

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In particular, it will focus on the St. Thomas Christians in Kerala, their socio-economic-political and religious situation, the coming of missionaries and travellers from Portuguese, the life of Chaldean Bishops in Kerala and their works, and the problems under the Portuguese administration that ultimately led to the Synod of Diaper.

1.1 St. Thomas Christians In India

1.1.1 Socio-Cultural Background

Tamilakam was divided into many city states and among them the following three were the main dynasties: the Cheras (Western region), Cholas (Eastern Region) and the Pandayas (Southern region).

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The country was divided into five Geographical sections, mainly from south to north. Venad or the land of vels, Kuttandu or the land of Lakes, kudanadu or the western land, Puzhinadu or the marshy tract and the karkanadu or the impregnable area. Brahmins were the superior community and they showed their superiority over others. There was also the existence of the caste system. Sangam literature divides the history of the Tamil country, particularly of Kerala, into four eras. The first five centuries A.D. are called beginning age. The sixth through eighth centuries are known as the Dark Age. The third era spans from the ninth century to the eleventh, being called the Golden age. And the final one, beginning in the eleventh century and extending to the fifteenth, is referred to as the Period of decline and splitting up.

India was well known in the field of trade and commerce and we had great trade relationships with the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Bactrians, the Scythian Sakas, and Parthians, the Kushans, the Huns, and others. These relationships significantly influenced our our society and culture. People mainly engaged in agricultural trade and military service. Large quantities of pepper were exported around the world and served as the main source of income. Among the various occupations, military service had a special priority, and even boys were trained to use weapons. Within this social milieu, MarThomaChristians enjoyed a high position in the state and they only sat before kings.

Long association with foreigners for trade led to intercultural marriages and this significantly influenced our culture. Their main food was rice. Poets and scholars were held in great honour. Music, poetry, and dance were the main sources of entertainment.” Christian women had ornaments and they were more modestly dressed than the Nayar women. Hinduism, Islam, and the pagan religions had great influence on Kerala’s culture. The religions also had influences upon each other. Christianity, since its followers ultimately came from pagan religions, held on to certain pagan beliefs and practices. Church building had great influence from Hindu temple. Their architecture, decorations, paintings, were seen in churches.

1.1.2 Political Climate.

In 16th and 17th centuries Kerala was divided into about 50 kingdoms, each of which was under a king. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Samoothiriof Calicut, the Tiruvadi of Travancore and the Kolathiri at Cannanore were the major rulers. Raja of Cochin was considered as major Raja. Because Christians had high positions in the community; they enjoyed civil and judicial powers. By the 15th century, the King of Udayamperoor became the protector of the Kerala church, allowing Christians to become a more powerful community. After the death of Unniraja of Udayamperoor in 1565, it was annexed to Cochin and thereby the King of Cochin became the protector of Christians. Christians enjoyed 72 privileges, equal to the privileges enjoyed by the AzhvancheryTamprakal, who was a noble Brahmin and a ruler. Even Nayars were privileged to be called as “Brother” by the Christians. MarthomaNasranis were called Margakkar, Mappilas, NazraniMappilas and their priests were called katahanars. The archdeacon was called “jathikkukarthavyam”. They always stood together and their unity was their strength. Punishments were given for criminal activities, though they were generally less severe than other religions. There were “palliyogam” in which decisions regarding religious matters were taken. Christians supplied the Raja of Cochin with an army of 50000. They were the strongest soldiers in the battlefield. Under “pannikkar” the boys started to study, read, and write from age of eight. The houses had wooden walls and roofs were made with plaited palm leaves.

1.1.3 Religious Situation

In 15th and 16th centuries Kerala witnessed a glory time, because all religions, especially Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, led a very harmonious life, with few exceptions. Christians were given honours and respect. They were considered by the community to be holy men. Mar Thoma Nazarene’s had many privileges which made them to be superior to other religious men. With regard to Hindu religion there were caste and class divisions and sometimes it was rigid in nature; in which Brahmins enjoyed superior position. Then Kshatriyas, followed by Vaishyas and lastly Shudras they struggled like anything. Untouchability was prevalent at that time.

Mohammadians or Muslims played a major role in forming of Kerala’s culture. They also given importance to conversion and they could convert many people from Kerala. They had vital position in the field of trade and commerce. Muslims controlled the main trade routes between the countries of west Asia and east, pepper was main exporting item. Thomas of Cana was a merchant, who is also called “Knaya Thomas”. He came from Persia. It is said, once Mar. Joseph got a dream in which poor Christians from Kerala was crying. He went to Katholikos of Jerusalem who asked Thomas the merchant to report on the condition of Christians in Malabar when he goes for his next voyage. After his visitof Malabar he went back and reported to katholikos that they are inmuch need of help and need priests to teach them. The katholikos then sent, Thomas of Cana with Mar. Joseph, several priests, deacons and many people. When they reached Malabar people welcomed them whole heartedly. They were given place to live and granted many social privileges. It was said that there were 400 landed at cranganore which was later called Mahadevaattom.

There is a story about Thomas of Cana and it’s like this, Thomas had two wives .one came from his country and second one is from Kerala. The former one lived in south of river cranganore and latter wife lived in north of the river, she was from a Nayar caste. The family who lived in the southern part did not marry from other families but from their own community. This practice continues even today and they influenced greatly on MarThomaNazarenes in Malabar.

In the 4TH century Syrian Christians were governed by bishop and priests from Chaldean church. People here accepted them and had good relationship with them. They had great role in making MarThomaNazranisreligious life and liturgy in a defeating manner. They have given good leadership to Kerala church.

1.2 Arrival Of Portuguese In Kerala

1.2.1 Vasco de Gama

When Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route to India in 1498 and landed in harbour of Calicut a new chapter in the history of Christianity was opened.The object of the Portuguese coming to India was primarily commercial so it was necessary to build up a colony so that their commercial need can be met easily. For that they selected Cochin which is a coastal area. Their arrival caused many tensions here in Malabar. First one is question of Liturgy customs which was unknown to Padroado missionaries. Second one is there was a question of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the fact that Thomas Christians were attached in the Church of Persia.

Since the Portuguese has the right of Padroadowith them by the second time in 1500. There were many missionaries as well with Vascoda Gama for conversion and Christianise Keralites. Most of the missionaries were Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Carmelites, Theatines, etc. Merchants entered into marriage with women from Kerala and Baptism was given to them those who were Baptised. Within no time many converted to Christianity. With regard to the ecclesiastical organizations of Padroudobetween 1500-1534 all ecclesiastical jurisdiction in India was in the hands of general vicar. The Indian territory then belonged to the diocese of Junchal. On the inland of Maderia. In 1534 Poul 3rdseparated the territory of India from the diocese of funchal and named Goa as a suffragan Diocese.

In the beginning Mar ThomaChristians in Kerala and Portuguese were in a healthy and good relationship. Their spiritual life was taken care of Chaldean patriarch Bishops and priests. Prot?g?es also had good contact and acceptance with Chaldean church.

1.2.2 St. Francis Xavier

The Franciscans were the first to arrive India from Portuguese. Then there was another group of missionaries came and they are Jesuits under the leadership of Francis Xavier, who is considered the founder of Jesuit missions in the East. It wason 6th May 1542 Francis Xavier and a small party landed at Goa. He was a very gentle and holy priest. King John III of Portugal wanted some excellent priests for overseas and heard of Jesuits. So, Francis Xavier was chosen and therefore, he was a specially commissioned envoy of the King of Portugal and the legate of Pope Paul III, vested with immense power. In 1549 Francis Xavier was appointed the first Provincial of the third province of the Society of Jesus.

In 1542, there were not so many Christians in Goa. There were many Hindus, and Muslims in Goa. He was shocked by seeing the life of the Christians in Goa, their ignorance, and vice. The Portuguese had other priorities than building up the Church. He thus moved to the Coromandal Coast. In October 1542 he landed at Manappadu on the Fishery Coast and made his way to Tuticorin on foot gave baptism to thousands.

As helpers, he appointed catechists called Kanakkappillai. With them he travelled from village to village and instructed and baptized. Many villages accepted Christianity. Xavier gave them their Christian identity, a pride in their Christian faith, and a great attachment to it. In 1544 he made mass conversions of the Mukkuvas on the Travancore coast. He also reached out to Vasai, and indeed other places of Asia, like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan. Mass baptisms of whole village were common. In December 1544 he baptized 10,000 people on the Tranvancore coast. According to Jesuit records he baptized 70,0000 people.

Cite this page

The history of the Kerala Church. (2019, Dec 08). Retrieved from

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