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The South Indian Tradition of the Apostle Thomas

  • P. J. Thoma

Although a great deal has been written concerning St. Thomas's connexion with India, it has so far resulted only in barren controversies and inchoate theories. The finding of the “Gondophares.” coins in the Cabul region raised great hopes of a final settlement of the problem; but apart from the (itself doubtful) identification of a single name in the Ada Thomae, it has shed little light on the mysteries of Christian origins in India. Nay, it has had positively injurious results, inasmuch as it diverted the attention of scholars into fields far remote from the familiar haunts of the Thomistic tradition. South India is the quarter from which we should expect fresh evidence: the north has no known claims to any connexion with the Apostle. In the south live the Christians of St. Thomas—the so-called “Syrians” who for more than a thousand years have upheld their descent from the Apostle's disciples. There also we have what has been believed from immemorial antiquity to be the tomb of St. Thomas, with various lithic remains of pre-Portuguese Christianity around Madras. South India has a remarkably ancient tradition of St. Thomas; and it is a living tradition, not a dead legend. It can be traced back at least to the sixth century a.d., and it still lives in popular memories, not only of Christians, but of others not recognizing the claims of Christianity. The existence of this tradition is known and recognized; but no organized attempt has yet been made to explore it.

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page 213 note 1 There are now over 1,000,000 Christians who belong to this ancient body. About one-half of them own allegiance to the Pope, but retain their ancient liturgy and practices. Of the other half the bulk are Jacobites. The Nestorians are very few in number.

page 214 note 1 This is published in Fr. Bernard's Christians of St. Thomas (Malayālam). Various MSS. of this and similar songs are in the writer's possession.

page 215 note 1 But the story of the dream-vision is found in another song called “Margam Kali Paṭṭu”, used more by the Sudhists, who are supposed to be descended from Mesopotamian colonists. See P. U. Luke, Ancient Songs of Syrian Christians (Mal.).

page 215 note 2 On the connexion of St. Thomas with China see a suggestive, if queer, work, Asian Christology and Mahayana, by Gordon, E. A., 1921.

page 215 note 3 The tradition is that the Apostle planted crosses in these seven centres. SirTemple, R. C. (IA., 1921, p. 158) regards this as damaging the whole Thomistic tradition, since the worship of the Cross is not regarded as having prevailed so early among Christians. This raises a highly controversial point, which cannot be settled before Eastern Christian symbolism and art have been explored. At its worst it may be a subsequent interpolation; but this, if true, cannot by itself demolish the whole tradition.

page 216 note 1 There was then going on a very brisk intercourse between the Malabar Coast and Western Asia. Alexandria was then the centre of Eastern trade, and every year more than 100 vessels used to sail to India with the help of the monsoons (discovered by Hippalus in a.d. 47 and hence called after him). Pliny (a.d. 50–60) calls Muzīris “the nearest mart of India” (bk. vi, chap. xxvi).

page 216 note 2 The church of Trekpālēswaram is said to have been refounded later at the adjacent place of Neranom, which thereby took the place of the former.

page 217 note 1 See Kēralolpatti (MangaloreB.M. Press), p. 27.

page 217 note 2 That there were Aryan Brahmins already in Malabar is very likely from (i) the occurrence of Sanskrit place-names at the time, and (ii) from certain notes of the geographer Ptolemy (second century a.d.). See McCrindle's, Ptolemy, pp. 170–1. This subject, however, has not been properly studied so far.

page 218 note 1 All non-Hindu religions, including Christianity, have been called “Bouddha” in Malabar; and this practice is continued even to-day.

page 219 note 1 According to Malabar tradition he led a colony of Mesopotamian Christians in a.d. 345. Recent critics place him in the eighth century, but on no special ground, except that the other date is too early, according to their own chronological conceptions.

page 219 note 2 The writer has two palm-leaf copies in which the complete account appears. The story above narrated is on leaves 9–12. The same story is found in a shortened form in the printed version (Mangalore), pp. 28–31.

page 220 note 1 Tamils 1,800 Years Ago, ch. i.

page 220 note 2 “Palli” in Malabar means a Christian church or other place of non-Hindu worship.

page 220 note 3 Or Kandapparaser (= King Kandappa). “Araser” in Tamil means king.

page 221 note 1 A version of this legend was published in a Tamil journal, Sumitren, in 1900. It appeared in French in Annales de la Société des Missions Étrangères of Paris.

page 221 note 2 See Cathay and the Way Thither, vol. iii, p. 250.

page 222 note 1 See Labrourt, , Le Christianisme dans l'Empìre Perse sous la Dynastie Sassanide (224–632), p. 306.

page 222 note 2 See Renaudot, , Ancient Accounts of India and China by two Mahammadan Travellers in the Ninth Century, 1733, pp. 7981.

page 222 note 3 See Hosten's, Fr. H. notes on San Thomé in Report of the Indian Historical Records Commission, 1922.

page 222 note 4 “Calamina” is supposed to be a form of the Syriac word “Galmona” (hillock). It has been also interpreted as a corrupt form of “Coromandel”.

page 223 note 1 According to the Syriac version, which is the original one.

page 223 note 2 Buchanan, Claudius, Christian Researches in Asia, 1814, p. 135. Bishop Heber also thought the same. See Indian Journal, ii, p. 178: “ It may be . . . as readily believed that St. Thomas was slain at Meilapur as that, St. Paul was beheaded in Rome or that Leonidas fell at Thermopylae.”

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society
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