Christianity in India

Christianity in India

In this Blog’s post we will discuss about the beginning of Christianity in India. History is not repeated. It happens only once. All historical narrations are interpretations.  Role of subjectivity is high. Here, we use some Tools for determines the history of Christianity in India.

Christianity in India

There are three basic distinct traditions on Christianity in India. They are:

1. Greek East – also called Orthodox, Byzantine.

2. Latin West – Roman.

3. Syriac Orient.

Eastward movement first brought Christianity to India. Beginning of Christianity in India remains shrouded in traditions.

Three traditions of Christianity in India

1. St. Thomas traditions – strongest one.

2. By the evangelistic work of Persian merchants.

3. By the evangelistic work of Bartholomew.

According to the general tradition; Christianity was brought to India through the evangelistic activity of St. Thomas; one of the apostles of Christ during the first century A.D. Those who propound apostolic origin do not deny the role of the East-Syrian merchants (Persian merchants).

However, they see their actions as reinforcement. The general tradition is supported by occasional reference by Fathers from the third century onwards. At the same time; South Indian tradition stands alone. It is strongly believed by a living community. Yet, among the western scholarship; the question on the apostolic origin of Christianity in India remains a matter of debate. As a rule, they denied the tradition for the lack of contemporary documentary evidence.

Traditionally, it is affirmed that St. Thomas came to Kerala in the year A.D 52. He landed at the port city of Kodungallur. He is believed to have preached to the Jewish colony there; and made converts from among them.

He travelled along the coastal regions southwards and founded churches. He established seven Churches at Cranganore (Malankara); Chavakkad (Palur), Parur (Kottakkavu), Gokkamangalam, Niranam, Kollam; and Nilakkal (Chayal). Except Nilakkal all other centres are on the coastal belt. Nilakkal is in the Ghat region of Sabarimala.

The tradition further says that he ordained presbyters from four Brahmin families; called Sankarapuri, Pakalomattam, Kalli and Kalliankal. Afterwards he travelled to Malacca and even to China. Finally, he came to Mylapore. Here, his preaching aroused hostility of the local Brahmins. They speared him to death. The year of his martyrdom is 72 CE.

You can read about, Theology

Problem of reconstructing early history of Christianity in India in St. Thomas tradition.

1. No contemporary records to establish the tradition.

2. Gospels present St. Thomas – regarding his mission to India no mention. No similar documents come from his own time.

3. Not until third century, early writers did not figure this. Even them, gave only slight allusions and never a full account.

4. Early Fathers gave very little information regarding the activity of St. Thomas.

5. For those who were not acquainted with India, India was a vague idea.

6. Eusebius also says, it was Bartholomew who went to India.

7. There is general agreement that his sphere of work is somewhere around East. But, there is discrepancy regarding the country to which he went.

8. Prevailing opinion by fathers from fourth century onwards is India. Ambrose of Milan, Gregory of Nazianzeus, Ephrem the Syrian, Jerome etc.  Except Ephrem, the fathers bring St. Thomas as illustration when writing something else.

9. St. Ephrem, several hymns in honour of St. Thomas. He speaks of the transfer of bones to Edessa in Carmina Nisebene 42:1.1-2.2.  This day of transfer is acknowledged as Third July.

10. Others of earlier dates associate St. Thomas with Parthia (Persian Empire stretching from North-west India to Mesopotamia). Eusebius “When the Holy apostles and disciples of our Saviour were scattered over all the world.

Thomas so the tradition has obtained as his portion Parthia” (EH 3:1) Eusebius uses Origen as the source Commentary on Genesis 3. Rufinus repeats Eusebius (end of 4th century), Socrates (5th century).  Clementine Recognitions of 3rd century (apocryphal book) also does this.

11. Indian oral tradition expressed in some folk songs. Ramban Pattu, the Veeradiyan Pattu, the Margam Kali Pattu etc. Among the local tradition Ramban Pattu and the Margam Kali Pattu are the best known. Veeradiyan Pattu is sung by Hindu singers.

Opinion of the Scholars (Christianity in India)

First approach of Scholar

Some scholars out rightly denied that St. Thomas went to India. They are Bolandist Peeters S.J., Garbe, Harnack, Vallee-Poussin, French historians: Basnage (Protestant) (1692), Tillemont (Roman Catholic 1637-1698); 17th century, La Croze, (Protestant 1758); 18th  century.  English Protestant writers John Kaye (1859) and James Hough (1859) of the 19th century.

One of their objections was on the assumption that in the state of communication during the first centuries. It is unlikely for a Palestinian Jew to travel to India. Another base for their accusation was from the strong influence of scientific reasoning. Typical western arrogance of superiority played a strong role in playing down the antiquity of Indian Christianity.

They came into India boasting that what they believe is the best and to acknowledge a longer history for Indian Christianity was very difficult for them to swallow.

Second approach

Some accepted the North Indian apostolate on the basis of the Acts of Judas Thomas.  at the same time they denied the South Indian tradition. Those who upheld this view are G. Milne Rae (1892), former professor at Madras Christian College (The Syrian Church in India, 1892) and  also the German Fr. J. Dahlmann.

According to them, Syrian immigrants of a later date brought in the tradition of the early Church that St. Thomas had gone to India and they assimilated this tradition and linked it to their origin. That is the north Indian tradition wandered into the south. For Milne Rae the main source was Acts of Judas Thomas. On this basis, he restricts Thomas’ apostolate to North India alone.

Some scholars did not make any confident approval of any approach. The tendency is to admit the possibility but to express gentle doubt or avoid judgment on the basis of the lack of conclusive evidence.

According to them not proven, but possible, not unlikely. Wilhelm Germann (1877), Vincent A Smith (1924); Alfonse Mingana (1926), John Nicole Farquhar (1926-27); Eugene Tisserant (1941), Kenneth Scott Latourette (1953), Leslie W. Brown (1956), C. B. Firth (1960-1974); F. E. Keay (History of the Sryian Christians in India, (p.14) (1960); Stephen Nie (1984), Ian Gillman and Hans Joachim Klimkeit (1999), Cristiano Dognini and Ilaria Ramelli (2001).

Third approach

Third approach is that the apostolate is highly probable. Tisserant and Hambye (1957), Edward Hambye (1963), Samuel H. Moffett (1992-1998).


Fourth approach

It is historical and certain e.g. John P. Maffeus (1605), Joseph Simon Assemani (1728), Claudius Buchanan (1814), Mathias H. Hohlenberg (1822)Alphonse E. Medlycott (1905), Joseph Dahlmann (1912), P. J. Thomas (1920-1924). K.N. Daniel (1950), E.M. Philip (1950), A.C. Perumalil (1952-1971); Placid J. Podipara (1966-1970); Mathias Mundadan (1984) Benedict Vadakkekara (1995-2007).

Yet others who wanted to justice to all available evidences, propose that the apostle visited both North and South India.  Bishop Medlycott suggests two separate journeys. One by land route to North India and other by Sea. J. N. Farquhar thinks of an extended mission; first went to Punjab, left India to Socotra and then reached Malabar. 

Records regarding the beginning of Christianity in India

The earliest historical record regarding the apostolate of Thomas is Acts of Judas Thomas. This is an apocryphal work from the third century. It is Gnostic in origin and romantic in style.

Thomas create heavenly palace

According to the narrative, Apostle Thomas undertook preaching the Gospel to the Indians much against his own will. When the apostles assembled together to discuss the area of their evangelistic work; they cast lots to determine to countries each of them should go. The lot fell for Thomas to go to India. But he refused to go. In a dream, Christ commanded him to go. But still he resisted.

Then the Lord sold Thomas as a slave to Habban (a merchant ); who came from King Gondaphorus in search of a carpenter to build a palace for him. Thomas was brought to the Kingdom of Gondaphorus.

He was entrusted with money to build the palace. St. Thomas distributed the money to the poor. When the King came to see the palace; there was no palace. So, the king got angry and he ordered Thomas to be put in the jail. Meanwhile, king’s brother Gad got sick and he died. He was taken to the heaven.

There he found a very beautiful palace and requested the angel; whether he could get that. But the angel replied that it was built by ‘that Christian’ for his brother. Then he requested permission to go back to his brother and tell this. Permission was granted. When he got back life, Gondaphorus was astonished. Thomas was released.

Several other episodes of Thomas’ work is given. Finally he reaches the court of King Misdeus. On his preaching many got converted including the queen. She relinquished marriage. Aggrieved by this the king killed Thomas. Later his remains were transferred to Edessa.

Alexander the Great

In 1854, Alexander Cunningham in the Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal; Vol xxiii attested the finding of around thirty thousand coins bearing Greek; and Indian legends from Afghanistan and Punjab.

Large part of them belonged to Greek princes; who ruled as inheritors and successors following the conquest of Alexander the Great. The collection also included coins of Scythian conquerors and Parthian kings.

Gondophares belonged to this category of rulers. According to Cunningham, the coins of Gondophares were common in Kabul and Kandahar and Seistan, and in the Western and Southern Punjab. The language used in these coins is Indian Pali. Numismatic studies places the period between 50 BCE and 50CE.

Jews of Kerala (Christianity in India)

According to Thomas Puthiakunnel; St. Thomas preached to these colonies and established the nucleus of Christian communities. But this tradition is not so prevalent.  Mundaden sees this as an adaptation of Acts of Thomas.

When exactly the first settlement of Jews took place is a matter of dispute. Many believe that Jewish colonies were present along the coast in the first century CE. According to some, Jews existed in Kerala from the time of Solomon (10th century BCE). According to the Jews in Kerala; they came there during the time of Emperor Titus in CE 72; following the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Trade and Commerce

Greeks and Romans carried extensive trade with South India. This is particularly true during the first three centuries of the Christian era. Greek physician Dioscorides (40-90 CE) mentions ginger, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon; and pepper in his Materia Medica as possessing medical value.

He was a contemporary to Pliny. Pepper was valued very high, even as gold and silver. That is why Sanskrit writers named pepper as Yavana Priya.

Discovery of Trade route

An Egyptian pilot by the name Hippalus charted the monsoon winds blowing regularly across the Indian Ocean. This catalyzed the trade between South India and the West.

Material Proofs of Christianity in India

1847 discovery of Roman gold coins from Kottayam and Kannur (British Malabar). Roman coins also discovered from Iyyal very near to Palayur in the Trichur district; (34 punch marked coins, 12 gold coins and 71 silver coins). They cover a period from 123 BC to 117 AD.

In 1983 from the compound of Madhavi Amma near N. Parur a few miles from Kodungallur 2000 coin discovered. Many coins were lost. But now 252 coins survived. They included the coins of Nero, Antionius Pius etc.

Periplus wrote “It is believed make a profit on sale of gold coin in India; because these does not only use as currency; but also for ornament.” Many coins found in Kerala pierced to make necklaces.


Also known as Muzris, Cranganore and many other names. 


Well connected by back waters. Kautilya minister of Chandra Gupta mentions the pearls of river Churna (Periyar); and ivory of Mahendragiri forests. He also says that it had better roads and was easier to travel (Arthasastra 300 BC); Emperor Asoka (272-232 B.C.) mentions as land of Chera Kings (Keralaputras).

Pliny (23-79) in his Encyclopaedic Natural History in 37 Books; – Colobotras, a land from where pepper brought  and Periplus;– Keprobotras and Ptolemy – Kerobotras.


AD 44-45 charted monsoon winds. In winter blow over the Indian Ocean from the north east; and in summer from the south west.

The history of Christianity in India through has come by the evangelistic activity of St. Thomas; one of the apostles of Christ during the first century A.D. Those who propound apostolic origin do not deny the role of the East-Syrian merchants (Persian merchants).