First century BC
On the south western side of the Indian peninsula; between the mountains and the Erythraean Sea (now Arabian Sea); stretching from Kannoor to Kanyakumari was the land called Cherarajyam, which was ruled by local chieftains. Later this land came to be known as Malabar and (now Kerala). Muziris (now known as Pattanam near Cochin) was the important entry port. After the discovery of Hippalus, every year 100 ships arrived here from various parts of the then known world, including Red Sea ports.
During the time of Moses and King Solomon, the Malabar coast traded spices and luxury articles with Israel. Excavations carried out at Pattanam from 2005 provided evidence that the maritime trade between Kerala and the Mediterranean ports existed even before 500 BC or earlier . It is possible that some of those traders who arrived from the west, including Jews, remained in Kerala.
While Augustus Caesar (31 BC- 14 AD) was the Emperor of Rome and Herod the Great (37-4 BC) was King of Judea, ambassadors from Malabar visited the Emperor Augustus. Nasranis believe that these ambassadors were The Wise Men From the East, of the Bible. People who believe they are descendants of these Wise Men gather every year in Kerala. In the 1st century map Tabula Peutingeriana (see the map) a temple of Augustus is clearly visible near Muziris showing the close relation between Rome and Malabar in the 1st century BC.
Arrival of Saint Thomas
Saint Thomas Christians believe that Thomas the Apostle arrived in Kerala around AD 52. He landed at Muziris (now known as Pattanam, near Cochin on the Malabar Coast). The Jews and a few of the Wise Men, who had been to Bethlehem to worship Jesus listened to his preaching and became followers of Jesus of Nazareth.. It is believed that after leaving Malankara, St. Thomas proceeded to the East coast of India and died a martyrs’ death at a place called Mylapore in Tamil Nadu.
The first Christians
In early Christian community, Nazraani was not a religion, but a sect in the Jewish community. This was used to denote followers of Jesus of Nazareth. (Acts. 24:5; 28:22). Khristianos (or Christians) was initially used largely to refer non-Jewish people who followed Christ. In Kerala, the sect was known as Nazraani Margam. Margam in Malayalam means, ‘The Way’. (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:22). Thus the word Nazraani clearly shows that many who joined them were Jews. But in Kerala this name was replaced by the word “Christians” in the 20th century.
First 15 centuries
The Malankara Church was quite democratic. It is believed that St. Thomas appointed elders at every place he preached to lead the believers. He prayed and laid his hands upon them, in the same way as the other disciples did. This was the system used till the arrival of Portuguese. By 1500, Malankara Church had Edavaka mooppenmar (Parish elders) and a Jathikku Karthavyian, also known as Malankara mooppen (Church leader). Before the arrival of Portuguese, Latin was unknown to Malankara people. In the ‘’Decrees of The Synod of Udayamperoor’’ presented to the St.Thomas Christians in their mother tongue Malayalam, Malankara Mooppen was the name used to refer the Church leader, except on three occasions. For the first time in 1653 Malankara mooppen was given the title Mar Thoma. The present head of the Mar Thoma Church is the twenty first Mar Thoma.
Pantaenus from Alexandria
In the 2nd century AD, Pantaenus the Philosopher visited India and found that there were many evangelists in India. They had a copy of the Gospel according to Matthew in Hebrew.. These evangelists were the early Christians of Malankara Church.
Arrival of Knanaya Nazranis
During the time of King Shapur II (310-379) of Persia, a group of 400 immigrants (72 families) from Persia arrived in Malabar under the leadership of merchant Knai Thomman. They were engaged in trade and settled down in Kodungallur.Another immigration from Persia occurred around 825 under the leadership of Persian merchant Marwan Sabriso, with two Bishops, Mar Sapro and Mar Prodh. Together they were known as Knanaya (Kanahi people. They continued to remain an endogamous group within the Nasrani community. They cooperated with the Malankara Church, attended worship services together but remained a separate identity. By the 10th century, in Malabar there were two Nazrani groups, the St. Thomas Christians and Knanaya community.
Bishops from Persia
Following the arrival of Christians from Persia, their bishops, priests or laymen began visiting them. Most of them were not able to return due to financial difficulties and traveling the long distance.The Knanaya people were worshipping together with the St. Thomas Christians. So these visiting bishops also attended these services. These visitors had neither administrative responsibilities nor had any jurisdiction over the original Nazrani Christians. They visited and taught Syriac. Probably it was at this time, Syriac became the liturgical language of the early Christians. This might be the reason for the rumour that bishops from Syria had jurisdiction over St. Thomas Christians. Probably it was during this time the Church began to use the St. James liturgy for their Holy Communion service.
Persian crosses were in churches once attended by Knanaya Nasranis. Out of five Persian crosses two are in Kottayam Knanaya Valia Palli. According to the archeologists, the earliest one was made in the 7th century. The cross became a symbol of Christianity in the west, during the time of Constantine (272-337). Saint Thomas Christians of Malabar had hardly any contact with other Christians before the arrival of Knanaya people from Persia. Moreover two of the oldest church buildings that still exist in South India do not have any marking of a Cross on their original structure. So most probably it was during the 7th century, cross became a symbol of St.Thomas Christians.
Visits corroborating the existence of the Malabar Christian Church
883 AD. – Alfred the Great (849-899), King of Wessex, England reportedly sent gifts “in India to St. Thomas and to St. Bartholomew”, through Sighelm, bishop of Sherborne.
1225 AD. – Chau Ju-Kua a Chinese traveller visited Kerala. In his writings he described the dress of a St. Thomas Christian bishop.
1282 AD. – Kublai Khan (1215–1294) Emperor of China sent an emissary to Kollam, It was followed by an emissary from Kollam under the leadership of a St. Thomas Christian.
1292 AD. – Marco Polo (1254–1324) on his return journey from China visited Kerala, mentions that, "The people are idolaters, though there are some Christians and Jews among them".
Collection of deeds
The rulers of Kerala, in appreciation of their assistance, had given to the Malankara Nazranis, three deeds on copper plates. Five sheets of them are now in the custody of St. Thomas Christians.
- Iravi Corttan Deed: In the year 774 AD. Sri Vira Raghava Chakravarti, gave a deed to Iravi Corttan of Mahadevarpattanam.
- Tharissa palli Deed I: Perumal Sthanu Ravi Gupta (844-885) gave a deed in 849 AD, to Isodatta Virai for Tharissa Palli (church) at Curakkeni Kollam. According to historians, this is the first deed in Kerala that gives the exact date.
- Tharissa palli Deed II: As Continuation of the above deed was given after 849 AD.
Arrival of the Portuguese
By 1500, Malankara Church was spread from Kannur in the North to Kollam in the South. It included the Saint Thomas Christians and the endogamous group, Knanaya Christians. The Portuguese started settling in India with the arrival of Vasco Da Gama in 1498. From that time the Portuguese were powerful in the western parts of India and they took control over the sea routes.
Synod of Diamper
The Malankara Church had hardly any contact with the Christians of Europe. Many of them did not even know that there was a Pope in Rome. But the Portuguese used their power to bring the Malankara Church under the supremacy of Rome. A powerful Archbishop Aleixo de Menezes arrived in Goa in 1595. He then convened a Synod at Udayamperoor, south of Ernakulam, from 20–26 June 1599. This is known as the Synod of Diamper. Here the Archbishop demanded obedience to the supreme Bishop of Rome. The representatives sent from various parishes in and around Cochin were forced to accept the decrees read out by the Archbishop. Thus those parishes of the Malankara Church were made part of the Catholic Church under Pope of Rome. But the remaining churches continued their original Apostolic beliefs and practices.
The Great Oath
Coonan Cross Oath : Under the leadership of Malankara Mooppen Thomas, Nazranis around Cochin gathered at Mattancherry church on Friday, January 24, 1653 (M.E. 828 Makaram 3) and swore an oath that is known as Oath as the "Bent Cross." Four months after this event according to their ancient tradition 12 elders of the church laid their hands on Malankara Mooppen Thomas and ordained him as Mar Thoma I. (see below Marthoma metropolitans),
Purification Movement (Reformation)
For the reformation that happened in the Malankara Church during the 19th century, the Malayalam word used was “Sucheekarana Prasthanam” which means Purification Movement. In this context the word Reformation is used which has a slightly different meaning.
Maramon Palakunnathu Abraham Malpan was a churchman loyal to the traditions of the Malankara Church. He wanted to reform the Church consistent with the apostolic and evangelical tradition. He tried to accomplish this by translating and revising the liturgy; by doing away with what he believed to be unscriptural practices; and by restoring the Church to what he considered to be its position before the Synod of Diamper. He also insisted on a high moral standard of conduct for laity and clergy alike. All this created a ferment in the Malankara Church and its effects are still discernible in the Church as a whole”.
In 1806, Rev.Dr. Claudius Buchanan, an Anglican missionary visited Malankara during the reign of Marthoma VI. With his help, the Bible was translated from the original Aramaic into Malayalam and was distributed to the parishes. But, soon after his meeting, representatives of the parishes met at Aarthattu church and declared (Aarthattu Padiola) that the Malankara Church should not follow the teachings of the churches of Rome or Antioch or any other foreign churches. This meeting is considered to be the beginning of 'Purification Movement' in Malankara Church.
By 1811 Bible was translated into Malayalam (known as Ramban Bible) and people began to read and study the Bible, they realized that it was necessary to follow the Biblical teachings and to reform the Church. So Punnathara Mar Dionysious (Mar Thoma XI) convened a meeting of representatives of the Malankara Church at Mavelikkara, on December 3, 1818. In that meeting a committee was appointed to recommend reforms in the Church. Abraham Malpan, Kaithayil Geevarghese Malpan, Eruthikkal Markose Kathanar, Adangapurathu Joseph Kathanar were members of this committee. This was the first step in carrying out Reformation in Malankara Church. Cheppad Philipose Mar Dionysius (Mar Thoma XII) did not like the interference of the Anglican Missionaries. So he convened a Synod at Mavelikkara on January 16, 1836, in which the Synod declared that, “We, the Jacobite Syrians are under the rule of the Patriarch of Antioch.” Abraham Malpan and his supporters did not attend this synod
On September 5, 1856, the reformation was planned. Strategy was determined by a group of 12 senior clergy under the leadership of Abraham Malpan. They issued a letter describing what they believed were the wrong teachings and a statement listing twenty-four practices of the Church which they believed were "evil" and had crept in by its association with other Churches and religions.The principal reforms were:
- Gave first preference to the Open Bible.
- Worship services including Holy Communion were conducted in the mother tongue, Malayalam.
- Holy communion was not celebrated when there were none to receive.
- Mandated that Communion under both kinds should be distributed separately, during Holy Communion
- Prayers to the saints and prayers for the dead were discarded.
- Auricular confession was discontinued.
- Icons, pictures, statues, and drawings of saints were removed from homes, churches, and places of worship.
- Changes were made in the liturgical books accordingly.
Reformation in action
Abraham Malpan on Sunday, August 27, 1837 conducted the Holy Communion service in Malayalam at his home parish at Maramon. Clergy, who supported him also did the same thing in various other parishes on the same day.
Every year on the first week of October, there was a church festival at Maramon, connected with a saint who died in 1685 at Kothamangalam. During that time a wooden image of that saint (they called it ‘Muthappen’) was taken around in procession and people used to venerate that saint by offering prayers and ask for intercession. In 1837, Abraham Malpan took the image and threw it into a well saying, “Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19). So when the festival came there was no image to be taken out for procession.
The use of the revised liturgy and the changes he brought about in practices offended Marthoma XII. So deacons trained under Abraham Malpan were refused priesthood. But Abraham Malpan was not disheartened. He continued with the reforms. He returned to Maramon. Many of his students joined him to continue their studies. All those who believed that the Church need to revitalize also joined him. Members of parishes in Kozhencherry, Kumbanad, Eraviperoor, Thumpamon, Elanthoor, Kundara, Kottarakara, Mavelikkara, Mallapally, and many other places made trips to Maramon to attend the service in Malayalam and listen to his sermons. Doors were also opened for reformation in other places by clergy who supported him.
At this stage he had three choices in front of him. Repent and go back to the old beliefs under Antioch; join the Anglican Church with western beliefs; or go forward with the reformation restoring the Church to what he thought was its pristine position. He selected the third one. Abraham Malpan died in 1845.
Mathen, a nephew of Abraham Malpan also followed his uncle’s steps. He went to Antioch and returned consecrated by the Patriarch of Antioch with the title Mathews Mar Athanasius Metropolitan. After Cheppattu Philipose Mar Dionysius abdicated due to ill health, to collect the interest of the Vattipanam (Fixed Deposit), Mar Athanasius was approved as Malankara Metropolitan by the governments of Kerala and Cochin on August 30, 1852. Mar Athanasius published the liturgy without the prayer to St. Mary. He consecrated Ouseph Mar Koorilos, Metropolitan (bishop) for Malabar Independent Church These actions angered many clergy and Pulikkottil Ouseph Kathanar went to Antioch in 1864. He returned as Joseph Mar Dionysius in 1865.
Independence of the Church
During the time of Thomas Mar Athanasius Metropolitan, Joseph Mar Dionysius demanded the possession of the seminary and the control of assets of the Church. Mar Dionysius and his supporters filed a case on March 4, 1879. (Case O.S.No. 439 of 1054).
During the course of a litigation (1879–1889), answering a question Thomas Mar Athanasius Metropolitan said, “ The Episcopal throne of Patriarch is the throne of St. Peter, while the throne of Malankara Church is that of St. Thomas. Malankara Church is as old as the Church in Antioch, equal in status, and both are independent.”
During a meeting convened by the Maharaja of Travancore, before the final verdit was given, Mar Athanasius testified that,
Malankara Church was never under any foreign rule and that he was unwilling to move away from the teachings or give the authority and Church possessions to a foreign Patriarch.