The Apostle St. Thomas in India
by Joel Philips
Indian Christian Day/Yeshu Bhakt Diwas gives us the opportunity to reflect on the history and the impact that Christianity has had in India, and thereby, in the lives of those who consider themselves of Indian origin. As we came together at Edworthy Park (Calgary, Canada) on July 3rd to celebrate this community, we saw how worship of the living God can transcend our language barriers as we praised God in various languages. We remembered the many saints who came before us. Those who fearlessly strived for the gospel, shared the good news, and gained souls for the Kingdom of God. Though many of us may not be residing in India, some of us may not have even had the opportunity to visit India, every Indian Christian is a part of an ancient community. And events like the Indian Christian Day celebration help to remind all of us of our place in a much larger picture.
Christianity is a growing faith in India with an estimated 32 million adherents. Though it may be proportionally smaller compared to Hinduism or Islam in India, the faith community boasts a number comparable to the population of Canada. And this does not even consider the Indian Christian diaspora.
But numerous misconceptions abound on the origin of Christianity in India. Many have alleged that Christianity was brought to India aboard the Portuguese, Dutch, and English colony ships – that it cannot claim to be an ancient faith in India. But this is simply not true. Christianity has a storied and rich history in the soils of India going nearly as far back as Christianity itself.
When the first European to directly set sail to India, Vasco da Gama, reached the southern shores in the 16th century, he witnessed a local Christian community there; albeit, holding to ancient eastern rites as opposed to the Latin rites that he would have been familiar with. In the 1290’s, Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant and explorer, stopped at the Coromandel coast in South India during his journey back to Europe after visiting China. He chronicles the various Christian communities that he saw – a testament to the presence of Christianity in India in the 13th century.
Going further back to the first millennium, archeological evidence, engraved copper plates dating to AD 849, notes of privileges granted to various Christian communities in South India. St Gregory of Tours, writing in the 6th century AD (500’s) in Tours, France, notes the tomb of St. Thomas in India and of the Christian community that existed in India at the time. It is evident then that the world of late antiquity knew that Christianity not only existed but had thriving communities in India.
Going even further back to AD 345 (estimated) we see Thomas of Cana (Knai Thoma) migrating to south India along with a group of Persian Christian merchants. Here they introduced Eastern Syriac rites to the local Christian community that existed well before their arrival. Numerous contemporaneous church fathers also attest to these communities. The descendants of these ancient communities trace the origins of their faith to one man – St. Thomas, an apostle and disciple of Jesus Christ. Upon his arrival to the shores of South India in AD 52, he planted seeds of Christianity that would forever be part of India’s story.
Who is St. Thomas, also known as Thomas Didymos or Thomas the twin? It is in the Gospel of John that we are really acquainted with him. In John 11, Jesus tells his disciples that they will travel to Bethany with him a few days after learning that Lazarus has taken ill. However, the disciples urge him to reconsider, fearing for His life at the hands of Jewish leaders. Thomas, with fervent loyalty, shuts down their concerns and chooses to stay by his Master’s side and says “Let us also go, that we may die with Him”. We see him next in John 14 at the last supper. Here, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them, that he will return, and that they know the way to where He is going. Thomas, being the one who needs evidence, asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”. This leads to Jesus’ uttering one of the most famous phrases in the gospel, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
The last time we see Thomas is in the scene that has earned him the moniker “Doubting Thomas”. Jesus appeared to all the disciples after his resurrection, but Thomas was not with them. When he hears of the others’ account, he is taken over by unbelief and exclaims, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe”. Days later, Jesus appears to the disciples again, this time with Thomas present, and invites him to satisfy his doubts by placing his hands in Jesus’ wounds. This causes Thomas to exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”, as he believes – a statement of worship as much as it is one of wonder!
The New Testament is silent on the life of Thomas after the Gospels and here we lean into church tradition and history. According to tradition, St. Thomas arrived in India in AD 52 to the shores of what is now Kerala. Some, following Eusebius’ church history, state that he initially went to Persia before coming to India. Thomas landed at Kodungallur, presumably traveling with Jewish merchants who had an established community in Kerala. As was common for the disciples, he first evangelized among the Jews and then among the native population.
The message of hope and redemption through the atoning work of Christ was popular in the communities where he preached. St. Thomas planted the first church in India in AD 55. To put this in perspective, Paul was on his third missionary journey at this time; the church in Ephesus was being founded during this time; much of Paul’s letters were written around this time – meaning that the church in India was established when the bible itself was being written.
St. Thomas would then go on to establish more churches in South India – collectively known as the “Seven-and-a-Half Churches” or the “Seven Royal Churches” (depending on the translation of “Arapalli”). These were not grand structures or big buildings, but humble communities of believers knit together in their faith in Christ.
Some traditions say that Thomas then went further north before coming back down to South India – but what we do know is that toward the end of his life, he traveled to the area that is now Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Here he continued to evangelize, bringing the message of hope and redemption to a lost world. Tradition notes that even the king of the land came to hear Thomas speak. And as was common, this caused some animosity amongst the local communities who ascribed ill-intent to his work, though many were saved. In AD 72, as he was praying on a hill, now referred to as “St. Thomas’ Hill”, he was attacked and killed at the end of a spear. His body was brought down by the local Christians and buried at a nearby beach where he spoke often.
The tomb of St. Thomas and its location was known throughout the Christian world. We see numerous mentions of it in the writings of the church fathers and other prominent historical figures. This was a pilgrimage site for many through the millennia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of AD 883 notes that King Alfred sent emissaries to visit the tomb from as far away as England. 1500 years after St. Thomas’ death, when the Portuguese arrived in India through the newly discovered sea route, they were shown the location of the tomb. They built a church over the tomb which was later supplanted by an English church. Of all the churches in the world only three claim to be built over the tomb of an Apostle – and the St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica in Tamil Nadu is one of them.
The story of St. Thomas did not end with his death. The church in India, though bolstered through successive waves of merchants and missionaries, finds its roots in St. Thomas. This movement would become a part of the very fabric of India and its history. We are heirs of a noble and storied apostolic tradition that goes nearly as far back as Christianity itself. All this, thanks to a man, who once doubted but then trusted his Lord, and traveled to bring the Good News to India – St. Thomas.