History of Christianity in Kerala is primarily based on three events and they are:
1. Arrival of Thoma of Kana
2. Arrival of the Portuguese, and
3. Arrival of the British
Arrival of Thoma of Kana and the Knanaya ? Orthodox Christians
It is now generally accepted as a fact that Thoma of Kana brought Christian priests to Kerala in AD 345. Thoma of Kana, popularly known as Knai Thomman, was a merchant who came from the Middle East. The word ?Knai? means merchant and as the word indicates, most of the Knai church members were merchants.
The Cheran Empire had trade relations with the Middle East and the Far East. And it is believed that the Cheran Navy had controlled the Arabian Sea and the trade routes at the heights of its power. The Cheran Empire had several important ports and many foreigners used to come and stay in and around the ports.
During ancient times, if a ship arrives at a port, the ship will remain at the port for several months. The merchants would sell their articles and in exchange collect gold, silver, diamonds, spices, clothes etc to take back with them to sell in their regions.
There were also Trade Agents who stayed back in the ports for several years to conduct the business on behalf of his master. Thus the port areas were well developed and the ports served as the Cosmopolitan centers of those ages. There were several people of different ethnicities and religious beliefs and they also have established their temples or churches or synagogues in the port regions.
Many merchants who stayed in the ports, being away from the family, has maintained relationships with the local women of the coastal regions. Some of them got married and settled in the Cheran Empire but others left leaving behind their local wives and concubines along with their children. Thus a new smaller society, similar to the Anglo-Indians of a later era, has emerged.
The majority Dravidian communities, especially the Cherans who classified the new people as ?illegitimates?, did not welcome the emergence of this new mixed society. But the new societies become wealthier because of their relationship with the traders and they sought legitimacy in a society, which socially and religiously isolated them.
Seeing the needs of this newly emerged Knanaya-Dravidian communities, Thoma of Kana brought Priest from Persia. The priests were engaged in Christianizing the new community. The weaker sections of the Cheran Empire have seen the new clout of the Knanaya-Dravidian community and many of them has converted to the new religion to attain a new status in the society.
Majority of the conversion were from the economically weaker section of the society. The tribes that mainly got converted to Christianity were Dheevarar (Fishermen), Veluthedans (Washermen), Thottees (Scavengers) and Elavans (Migrants from Lanka or Sri Lanka).
These new converts to Knanaya Orthodox Christianity along with the merchant community from the Middle East formed the first Christian community of Kerala. The Cherans called these new converts as Margapilla. ?Margam? means ?the way? in the Tamil language, the language of Cherans. ?Pilla? means ?Man?. The word Mappilla is a short form of the word Margampilla (Men of the way).
The Cherans used the word ?Margampilla? to denote the followers of the new faith, Christianity.
Year of Thoma of Kana?s arrival disputed
Even though AD 345 is considered as the year of Thoma of Kana?s arrival in Kerala, it is still disputed by some historians. The following are the reasons put forward by such historians who dispute the date.
The calendar system that was used in Kerala till AD 825 is the Kali Era. It was widely used in Kerala and if the Thoma of Cana arrived in AD 345 it would have definitely noted down in the Kali Era version. AD 345 in the Kali Era calendar system is 3445th year in the Kali Era. The Gregorian calendar system was not developed in AD 345 and there is no chance that someone will remember the arrival date in the Gregorian calendar system and not in the Kali Era system.
Another possibility is that, Thoma of Kana has arrived only in Malayalam Era 345, which is 1170 AD. The great Italian explorer Marco Polo recorded the very first historical reference about a Christian society in Kerala in 1298 AD.
The Knanaya Church established by Knai Thomman and the visiting Middle Eastern priests flourished because of the wealth brought by the merchants. The merchant community was influential in the Kingdom and has pleased the Cheraman Perumal of that time who ruled from the city of Kodungallur.
The Cheraman Perumal to show his appreciation to the merchant community has bestowed 72 Citizen Rights for the immigrant community. Until that recognition by the King, the new Christian community has remained as foreigners. Through the recognition they have become citizens of the Cheran Empire. These 72 Citizen Rights were engraved in a Copper Plate and presented to the Knanaya Community. In addition to the Citizen Rights, the King himself had laid the foundation stone for a Church and has asserted his commitment to protect the faith of the merchant community.
The recognition by the King and the influence of the new Christian community has attracted followers from different communities. People began to convert to this new faith even from the inland region (Ull Nadu). The money and the influence of the Knanaya Community attracted some converts, and some were to escape the class system of the Dravidian culture, and some due to their interest in the new faith. In order to control the new community, many prominent Cheran families also have converted to Knanaya faith. Thus the Knanaya community was a mix of Middle Eastern merchants and converts from different Dravidian communities.
The new community didn?t last long in peace. Soon the converts from the coastal regions and the inland regions began to segregate each other. The coastal region converts were mainly a mix of Dravidians and the Middle Easterners. They felt they were superior to the inland converts and began to call themselves as ?Knanaya? and the inland converts as ?Ulladans? (inlanders). The inlanders considered this as class segregation and began to call themselves as ?Orthodox Christians? in order to portray the segregation as a division due to faith and also to claim the authority of their new faith.
Even though there was segregation in the church, they stayed as one single church since they had to depend on the visiting priests from Middle East and they didn?t have a Bishop to lead any one side.
This infighting has failed the community to attract more converts and the Knanaya Orthodox Christians remained as a small community and as the only Christian community till the arrival of the Portuguese.
Arrival of the Portuguese and the Catholic ? Orthodox Rivalry
The Portuguese and the Catholic Faith
The Portuguese merchants are considered as the known second source of Christian faith in India. The merchants from Portugal came to Goa at first and from there they have moved to the south through the west coast. They reached another port city called Kollam (later known as Quilon) for trade with the Cherans.
It was a surprise for the Portuguese to see an already existing Christian community who has citizenship in the Empire. The traders who were traditionally Catholics reported this matter to Rome and the Pope has advised them to be in touch with the existing Orthodox believers in the Cheran Empire.
The priests who came with the Portuguese merchants gradually made progress in attracting some sections of both the Knanaya community and the Orthodox faith. When the Portuguese learned that they could convert them to the Catholic faith, they have reported it to Rome and Pope John XXII has sent Jordanus D Severac to serve as the Bishop of Kollam in AD 1330. In AD 1534, the Roman Church has sent another Bishop to Goa.
The arrival of a Bishop did made some changes in the Christian community of Kerala. The teachings of the Catholic church that there is no salvation outside the Church and the Seven Sacraments such as Baptism, Oprishma (Confirmation), Qurbana (Eucharist), Confession, Last Oprishma (Extreme Unction or Burial prayers), Ordination and Solemnization of Marriage.
The new teaching has attracted the Knanaya-Orthodox community but a minority was reluctant to accept it but had no choice but to associate with the Catholic Church.
One of the major setbacks for the now minority Knanaya and Orthodox community was that they didn?t have a Bishop. The visiting priests from the Middle East were not enough to counter the presence of a Bishop and his activities. This has caused enmity between the Catholic and the Knanaya-Orthodox community. This rivalry went on for quite a time until the Synod held at Udayanperoor in 1599. It was later known as the Diamper as the British called it.
The Orthodox believers have gathered in Mattancherry near Cochin on AD 1653, which is 54 years after the Udayanperoor Synod, and took an oath to separate themselves from the Catholic Church and its faith and to remain as Orthodox believers.
Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
The Orthodox believers who gathered at Mattancherry took the oath in a distinct manner. They had tied a rope to a stone cross and people held that rope considering it as part of the Cross and took the oath.
The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church was thus formed and the Cross, which they used to take the oath, was later known as ?Koonan Kurishu? (Bent Cross). The Orthodox later formed a myth that, the Cross-has bent because of the massive pull by those who held the rope while taking the Oath.
While the Roman Catholic Church had a Bishop, the Orthodox didn?t have one. They had decided that they also need a Bishop. Their first Bishop Mar Thoma I was anointed on the same day of the Oath and thus the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church was formed.
The First Orthodox Syrian Christian Bishop
On the day of the Oath, there were 12 priests and one Arch Deacon. These 12 priests laid their hands over the head of the Arch Deacon Thoma and declared him as their Metropolitan. Arch Deacon Thoma took the title of Mar Thoma 1 and is considered as the first Catholicose of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.
Consecrating a Bishop by 12 priests is not considered as a Canonical Consecration. For that, it is required to have at least one Bishop who was consecrated canonically having apostolic succession. Therefore, it is true that the Mar Thoma 1, the first Bishop of the Malankara Orthodox Church, is not a canonically consecrated Bishop.
The original Malankara Orthodox Church split into two factions. One was the Jacobite and the other claimed that they were the original Church and they named themselves as the Malankara Orthodox Church. In 1912, under Metropolitan Vattasseril Dionysius VII, the Malankara Orthodox faction defied the Patriarch of Antioch and formed an indigenous Orthodox Church. The Metropolitan of this faction is known as the Catholicose of the East. Their headquarters is in Devalokam near Kottayam. The Malankara Orthodox faction is known as the ?Metropolitan? faction.
The Jacobite Church
The Jacobite Orthodox Christians who owe their allegiance to the Patriarch of Antioch decided to withdraw from the Orthodox Church and has decided to form the Jacobite Church. It was formed in 1911 and in that year itself they had a Metropolitan from Antioch named Mar Coorilose. Their Church is headquartered in Moovattupuzha. In 1975, the Patriarch of Antioch made Mar Philexinos of Kandanadu as the head of this Church. Later he was raised as Catholicose. The current head of the Church is Catholicose Thomas I. The Jacobite faction of the Orthodox Church is commonly known as the ?Bava? faction.
The First Knanaya Bishop
The Knanaya Orthodox Christians got separated from the Knanaya ? Orthodox combine only in 1910 when they got a Metropolitan consecrated by Patriarch Abdullah of Antioch.
The first Knanaya bishop was consecrated on 31st August 1910. Patriarch Mor Ignatius Abdullah has ordained Fr. Geevarghese Edavazhikal as the first Knanaya Bishop. And the new bishop has taken the official name as Mar Severious. Chingavanam near Kottayam became the Head Quarters of the new Knanaya Syrian Orthodox Church. The Church became prosperous during the time of Metropolitan Abraham Mar Clemis.
After the Knanaya Orthodox faction of the Knananites ordained a Metropolitan of their own, the Knanaya Catholic faction began to demand a Bishop of their own and separate status within the Catholic Church. On 1911 a separate Knanaya Catholic Church was formed within the Catholic community of Kerala and they are head quartered at Kottayam.
The Malankara Catholic Church
A faction of Orthodox Christians joined the Catholic Church under the leadership of Mar Ivanios in 1930. They are headquartered at Trivandrum and they are known as the Malankara Rites Church.
The Syrian Catholics
In 1887 there arose a division in the Roman Catholic Church based on the language of liturgy. The faction which used the Syriac language in their worship services began to call themselves as the Syrian Catholics.
The Latin Catholics
A section of the Catholics were using Latin for their worship services. They were called Latin Catholics. The Carmelites rites of the Catholics influenced this change from 1657 onwards. The Latin Catholics are mainly in the coastal regions of Kerala and majority of the converts were from the low caste fishermen community.
The Catholics and the Orthodox believers continued as the only two factions of Christians till the arrival of another Christian faith in Kerala.
Reformed Anglican Faith in Kerala
The Anglican Faith
The English Christians were one of the ancient Christian communities. Even though the Roman Catholic influence in England happened only after the missionary activities led by St. Augustine send to England by Pope Gregory in England, it was known that there were thriving Christian communities in England.
The Romans has established a systematic church in England by consecrating Augustine as the First Arch bishop of Canterbury at the hands of Arch Bishop Vergilius of France on November 16th 597 AD.
King Ethelbert of Kent accepted Christianity followed by 10,000 baptisms held on the Christmas Day in 597. And in AD 601, the Pope has elevated Augustine as a Metropolitan.
There were two temples to honor the Roman Goddess Diana and God Appollo. When King Sobert of the Eastern Saxons, the nephew of Ethelbert, succeeded his uncle, he has reconstructed the two temples as Christian churches and named it as St. Paul?s and St. Peter?s.
When Augustine died on May 26th 604 AD, he was entombed near to St. Paul?s and the St. Peter?s. A Church was later built by making the tomb as a part of it and it came to be known as the Canterbury Cathedral, the seat of the English Arch Bishop.
Renaissance and Reformation
A Reformation movement against the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire happened all over the Europe and its influence has reached England also. English nationalism and its urge to free itself and its faith from the corrupt Holy Roman Empire resulted in the formation of an independent Church of England. The approval of Emperor Henry VIII also helped the Church of England (Anglican Church) to declare independence. Even though the Catholics tried to regain control through Queen Mary I who was a devout Catholic, those attempts were thwarted with ascend of Queen Elizabeth I as the ruler of England.
Queen Mary I has murdered the Anglican Arch Bishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury and offered that position to the Catholics and thus accepted the Roman dominion over England once again. She has massacred several Anglicans and thus acquired the sobriquet of ?Bloody Mary?. But her successor Queen Elizabeth I, who is her half-sister, aligned with the nationalist Anglicans and re-established the independent Anglican faith and liberated England from the dominion of the Roman Church.
The rivalry between the Anglicans and the Catholics were so fierce that they began to fight wherever they met. The Anglo-Catholic war is still being waged in Northern Ireland and the Anglican faith is still considered as the main opposition to the Catholic faith.
It is during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that England has become a military power and has established an Empire. The English has extended their Empire to India also and in that course they arrived in Kerala also. Later the Anglican Church has formed a missionary wing to serve their citizens and to convert the natives of the occupied regions to the Anglican faith.
Church Missionary Society (CMS)
The missionary wing of Church of England was formed on April 12th 1799 AD in a meeting held at the Hotel Castle and Falcon in London chaired by Rector Rev. John Venn of Clepham. The new mission was named as Church Missionary Society. The CMS missionaries were sent to different occupied territories in Africa, Australia and India. They had started to function in India in 1814 and in Kerala on 1816.
CMS in Kerala
The Anglican CMS missionaries arrived in Central Kerala at towns such as Kottayam, Thiruvalla and Aluva. They have already heard about a Christian community in Kerala and were amazed to see the Catholics and the Orthodox protecting their faith even under severe slavery.
The CMS missionaries were reluctant to work with the Catholics and also learned about the fight between the Orthodox and the Catholics. They found a natural ally in the Orthodox believers and have decided to help the Orthodox and to work among them. The CMS missionaries has started a ?Mission of Help? considering the pathetic situations of the Knanaya ? Orthodox community and decided to bring them out of slavery.
The association of the Orthodox believers with the new rulers of India has brought them a new status among other Keralite communities especially over the Catholics. The Catholics now has included the Anglicans also in the religious fight for supremacy. The Catholics has now used the St. Thomas story with more vigor and fierceness against the Anglicans and the Orthodox.
With the growing influence of the British over the princely states of Travancore and Cochin in Kerala, the Christians began to have more influence and power. Both Catholics and the Orthodox began to use the newfound freedom in a clever way. More help poured to Kerala from Rome for the Catholics and the Orthodox received help from the Anglicans.
Historian Miss Eira Dalten wrote that the Orthodox received the help with much ?alacrity?. This newfound wealth and freedom of the Orthodox believers attracted more converts to this faith especially by the help of Anglican missionaries. One low caste called Chovans began to convert in thousands to the Orthodox faith to escape casteism in Hinduism and also attracted by the monetary and political benefits offered by the new Christian religion.
The Chovan was a reduced form of the caste name Chevakar. As Tamil was the language of Kerala until the 15th century, the Tamil word Chevakar means ?Servants?, the singular form being Chevakan. The Chevakars were the labor community during the rule of the Cherans in Kerala.
There was a community of Dravidians who came from Sri Lanka which is only some 30 kms from Kerala. They got settled in the southern coastal regions of Kerala. They were called Eelavar which means ?People of Eelam?. Sri Lanka was a Dravidian region and it was called ?Tamil Eelam? (Tamil Homeland) in ancient days. The current name ?Ezhavar? is a modern usage of the name ?Eelavar?.
Chevakars later mixed with the Ealavars and became the Ezhavar community. Another brotherly community of the Ezhavar is called Theeyar in Northern Kerala.
Ezhavars, Theeyar and Chekavars were the main castes who got converted to Orthodox faith to escape the slavery within the Brahmin dominated Hinduism.
Even though the Orthodox received more converts, this has caused a rift between traditional Orthodox believers and the new converts from the Ezhava-Chovar castes. The traditional Orthodox believers used to identify themselves as Mappillas and so they began to call the Chova converts as ?Choppilla? (Chovan Mappilla) in a way to segregate them.
One major entity of this segregation was a bridge named ?Lla?, just south of Changenacherry in Central Kerala, on the Main Central Road built by the British. The Orthodox Christians north of this Bridge considered themselves superior to those in the South of the ?Lla? Bridge. The main reason was the southern converts were from the Ezhava-Chovar community. Thus ?Lla? bridge has became an icon of casteism in Kerala Christianity.
Even though the Anglicans helped the Orthodox, it was with an aim to convert them to the Reformed faith of the Church of England. The Orthodox initially allowed it but once the wealth was acquired from the British, the Orthodox began to reject the Anglican faith. An Orthodox Synod was held in Mavelikara in 1836 and they decided to severe their ties with the Anglicans.
An association of 20 years between the Orthodox and the Anglicans has come to an end when the Orthodox believers refused to accept the reformed Anglican faith. And the Catholics utilized this situation. A section of Orthodox believers who were again influenced by the Catholics began to spread the myth of St. Thomas among the Orthodox believers and began to claim that they were also descendants of St. Thomas Christians. This influence of Catholics got more acceptances among the Orthodox believers so that they could use the St. Thomas legacy against the British as an added proof supporting their decision to separate from the Reformed Anglican faith.
The Orthodox along with the Catholics separated themselves as St. Thomas Christians and took a rival stand against the Anglicans. This act of the Orthodox was considered as an act of back stabbing by the Anglicans. They realized that the Orthodox used them to get freedom from slavery and amassed a lot of wealth from them and have betrayed them by not accepting the Reformed faith. The Anglicans had a new strategy to counter it and they implemented it.
Splitting the Orthodox Church
The Anglican missionaries decided to avenge the deception of the Orthodox believers by splitting the Orthodox Church. They utilized the rift between the Chova converts and the Mappilla Orthodox Christians to split the Orthodox Church and were successful in it. The Chova converts decided to join hands with the Anglicans and accepted the reformed faith but by keeping certain factors of the Orthodox faith.
A Cor-Episcopa of the Orthodox Church named Palakunnathu Abraham Malpan of Maramon became the leader of the Chova converts who decided to separate from the Orthodox Church. The CMS missionaries appointed him as a Teacher in the CMS College at Kottayam, which is the first college started in Kerala. He began to preach in favor of the Reformation faith of the Anglicans seeing that an alliance with the British would benefit his community who were never near to the ruling class ever in their history. Soon the Orthodox Bishop excommunicated him.
Bishop Mathews Mar Athanasius
Abraham, with the help of the CMS missionaries, sent his nephew Mathew of age 13 for Theological studies to Madras. But Mathew was dismissed from the Seminary for misconduct.
Once again Mathew was sent to Holmes in England for Theological studies at the age of 23. The CMS missionaries made him as a Deacon prior to sending him abroad for studies. He returned as a Bishop in 1843 and was named Mathews Mar Athanasius.
The British Resident of Travancore recognized him as the Supreme head of the Orthodox Church in Kerala and he was headquartered in Cochin.
Cheppattu Mar Dionysius
The Orthodox Church had to recognize Bishop Mathews Mar Athanasius because of their fear of the ruling British. But the anger among the Orthodox believers made the Patriarch of Antioch to approve another Supreme Head of the Orthodox Church and he was Cheppattu Mar Dionysius.
The rival groups of Bishop Mathews and Bishop Dionysius existed for some time. This rivalry forced Bishop Mathews to return to Maramon, the stronghold of Chova Christian community, from Cochin.
The Mar Thoma Church
Years later Abraham Malpan passed away and Bishop Mathews also became ill. It was not easy to consecrate another Bishop when Mathews was on his deathbed. Anticipating the death of Bishop Mathews, the followers of Abraham Malpan has decided to make Abraham?s son Thomas as the next Bishop. Neither Thomas was a Priest nor a deacon; rather he was only a layman.
The followers and relatives of Abraham Malpan presented Thomas in front of the dying Bishop Mathews. They took the ailing hands of Bishop Mathews and put it on the head of Thomas who was kneeling before him. And after that consecration Thomas was declared as the Bishop. Then he was declared as Metropolitan Thomas Mar Athanasius.
The litigations between Athanasius faction and the Dionysius faction went on for a while until the Dionysius faction won the court cases. Following this, with the help of the British and CMS missionaries Mar Athanasius and his followers formed the Mar Thoma Church.
The Anglicans began to help the Marthoma Church with their service and by money to establish schools and churches. But when asked to fully get rid of their remaining Orthodox faith and to accept the Reformed faith completely, the Marthoma Church followed the path of their Orthodox brethren. They also began to claim that they were St. Thomas Christians and began to separate themselves from the Anglican Church. But a few stayed back with the Anglicans and formed the Anglican Church.
Conversion of Cherans to Anglicanism
The first Anglican Metropolitan in India was Bishop Daniel Wilson who had his head quarters in Calcutta. The Metropolitan asked the missionaries to divert their work to the spread the Gospel among the other weaker communities in Kerala.
The British who always study the history of the land they conquer had realized that the real owners of the land were the Cherans. The Anglican missionaries began to work among the Cherans.
Having lost the Kingdom, the Royals of the Cherans known as Cheramar (Noble Cherans) were scattered all over Kerala. In several places they became slaves but in other places they controlled small territories mainly in the hilly regions.
Cheramans, seeing this as an opportunity for freedom, has decided to convert to Christianity and to Anglicanism in particular. Habel (Abel) of Kaipetta was the first individual to convert followed by his family. It was followed by the baptism of Stephanose of the Vattappara family.
Anglican missionary Rev. John Hawkswork worked hand in hand with Rev. George Mathen of Mallappally, an ex-Orthodox priest and a Chova Christian who stood with the missionaries, to make this conversion happen.
By genuine and strenuous works of these stalwarts Cheramans began to converts in thousands. This was followed by conversion of other Cheran communities such as the Sambavars, Siddhanars, Einavars etc.
The Anglican faith began to thrive in Kerala with more and more converts from the Cheran community. Soon the Cheran converts has become a majority in the Anglican Church and this led to the formation of the Diocese of Travancore and Cochin in 1879.
The minority Chova converts to Anglicanism felt threatened by the strength of Cheran Anglicans in the Anglican Church. This caused them to segregate again and identified themselves like their brothers in the Mar Thoma Church as Syrian Christians.
The rift between the Syrian Anglicans and the Cheran Anglicans began to grow further.