Church of India

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Coptic Orthodox Cross
Note: This article or section represents an Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonian) perspective, which may differ from an Eastern Orthodox (Chalcedonian) understanding.
His Holiness Moran Mar Baselios Mar Thoma Didymos I, current Catholicos of the East (2005- )
The Indian Orthodox Church (also known as the Malankara Orthodox Church, Orthodox Church of the East, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Orthodox Syrian Church of the East), is a prominent member of the Oriental Orthodox Church family. The Church traces her origins to Thomas the Apostle, who came to India in AD 52, established the Church and suffered martyrdom.
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Alexandria: Britain | Antioch: Jacobite Indian


It can only be a gift of Grace that the faith and tradition of the small community of the Early Christians in India have remained alive and vibrant through nearly two thousand years. Even amidst periodic storm, from one source or another, across these centuries of change, the community has maintained an inner calm, in the safety of the spiritual anchor, cast in the original concept of the word Orthodox, that is the "right glorification of God".

The Early Christians of India (mainly on the Southern coast) were known as Thomas Christians and indeed by no other name until the advent of the Portuguese in the 16th century followed closely by the British.

That the Church in India was founded by St. Thomas the Apostle is attested by West Asian writings since the 2nd century (the Doctrine of the Apostles and Acta Thomae both of which were written at or near Edessa ca 200-250 AD); St. Ephraim, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregorios Nazianzen, in the 4th century; St. Jerome, ca 400 AD; and historians Eusebius ca 338 and Theodore, of the 5th century.

Against the background of trade between India and West Asia since ancient times, travel close to the coast of Arabia was feasible and not uncommon, reaching Malabar, the Tamil country, Sidh (Scythia) and western India (Kalyan), around the time St. Thomas came to India.

There is a wealth of corroborative evidence to support, and no good reason to doubt the living tradition of Thomas Christians that the Apostle arrived in Kodungalloor (Muziris) in Kerala in 52 AD preached the Gospel, established seven churches, and moved on to other kingdom, returning to Madras (Mylapore) in 72 AD where he was martyred that year. Writers of the 4th century, St. Ephraim and St. John Chrysostom knew also about the relics of St. Thomas resting at that time in Edessa, having been brought there from India by West Asian merchants.

The Church founded by St. Thomas must have been rather spread out in the subcontinent including the North-West, the Western and Eastern coasts of the peninsula, probably also reaching Sri Lanka. Tradition associates the ministry of St. Thomas with the Indo-Parthian king, Gondophares in the north and with King Vasudeva (Mazdeo) of the Kushan dynasty in the South. It was the latter who condemned the Apostle to death.

Among the early Churches

The Orthodox Church in India is one of the 37 Apostolic Churches, dating from the time of the disciples of Christ. Nine of these were in Europe and 28 in Asia and Africa. Today, it belongs to the family of the five Oriental Orthodox Churches, which include Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Armenia, and to the wider stream of the world's Orthodox churches, comprising in all over 150 million Eastern Christians. It has a strength of over 2 million members in about 1500 parishes mainly in Kerala and increasingly spread all over India and in many parts of the globe. Eastern in original and Asian in its moorings, the Indian Church is, a distinctive and respected part of the rich religious mosaic that is India.

Until the 16th century, there was only one Church in India, concentrated mainly in the south-west. The seven original churches were located at Malankara (Malayattur), Palayur (near Chavakkad), Koovakaayal (near North Paravur), Kokkamangalam (South Pallippuram), Kollam, Niranam and Nilackel (Chayal). Of the same pattern adopted by the other Apostles, each local church was administered, guided by a group of Presbyters and presided over by the elder priest or bishop.

The Indian Church was under the holy see of antioch, and is now. The Early Church in India remained one and at peace, treasuring the same ethnic and cultural characteristics as the rest of the local community. Its members enjoyed the goodwill of the other religious communities as well as the political support of the Hindu rulers. The Thomas Christians welcomed missionaries and migrants from other churches, some of whom sought to escape persecution in their own countries. The language of worship in the early centuries must have been Syriac.

The colonial era

The post-Portuguese story of the church in India from the 16th century- is relatively well documented. In their combined zeal to colonize and proselytize, the Portuguese might not have readily grasped the way of life of the Thomas Christians who seemed to accommodate differing strands of eastern Christian thought and influence, while preserving the core of their original faith. The response of the visitors was to try and bring them under Rome-Syrian prelates, apart from the new converts in the coastal areas under Latin prelates.

Pushed beyond a limit, the main body of Thomas Christians rose in revolt and took a collective oath at the Koonen Cross in Mattancherry in 1653, resolving to preserve the faith and autonomy of their church and to elects its head. Accordingly, Archdeacon Thomas was raised to the title of Mar Thoma, the first in the long line up to Mar Thoma IX-till 1816.

At the request of the Thomas Christians, the "Jacobite" bishop, Mar Gregorios of Jerusalem came to India in 1664, confirmed the Episcopal consecration of Mar Thoma I as the head of the Orthodox Church in India. Thus began the formal relationship with the "Jacobite" Syrian Church, as it happened, in explicit support of the traditional autonomy of the Indian Church.

History repeated itself in another form when the British in India encouraged `reformation within the Orthodox Church' Partly through Anglican domination of the theological seminary in Kottayam, besides attracting members of the church into Anglican congregations since 1836. Finally the reformist group broke away to form the Mar Thoma Church. This crisis situation was continued with the help of Patriarch Peter III of Antioch who visited India in 1875-77. With the enormous help from the Patriarch of Antioch, who is the head of the church, this church was able to sustain its faith.

Thus the relationship which started for safeguarding the integrity and independence of the Orthodox Church, in India, against the misguided, if understandable, ambitions of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Protestant Churches, opened a long and tortuous chapter in which concord and conflict between the newly formed Indian Orthodox Church and Syrian Orthodox Church have continued to alternate, to this day.

Three landmarks of recent history, however, lend hope that peace and unity might yet return to the Orthodox Community, driven rather unnaturally by divided loyalty. First, the relocation in India in 1912 of the Catholicate of the East originally in Selecuia and later in Tigris and the consecration of the first Indian Catholicose-Moran Mar Baselios Paulos- in Apostolic succession to St. Thomas, with the personal participation of Patriarch Abdul Messiah of Antioch, second, the coming into force in 1934 of the Constitution of the Orthodox Church in India as an autocephalous Church linked to the Orthodox Syrian Church of the Patriarch of Antioch, and third the accord of 1958, by which Patriarch Ignatius Yakoub III affirmed his acceptance of the Catholicose as well as the Constitution.

The fact that the Christian Church, first appeared in India, as elsewhere, as a fellowship of self-governing communities to the same body and born into the same new life, may yet light the path to a future of peace, within and beyond the Orthodox Community.


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