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Kerala - Asia's cradle for Christianity

Oldest Church in IndiaChristianity took root on the Malabar coast (now Kerala) in the first century AD around the seven churches that St. Thomas established there. Christian faith has since flourished across the land, coexisting with other religions. Now 11 of the 23 dioceses in India are in Kerala.

Kerala is a narrow stretch of lush green territory that lies on the southwest coast of the Indian subcontinent. Hindu legends claim that Kerala rose from the sea as a gift of God. The name Kerala means "the land of coconuts". The scenic beauty of Kerala is one of the most outstanding in India. The entire land is interlaced with rivers, placid lagoons, paddy fields and coconut palms. Plantations of rubber, tea, coffee, pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and other spices cover the highlands in the east, earning Kerala the nickname of "the spice coast of India".

The lure of spices attracted traders from the Middle East and Europe to the many trading ports - Calicut, Cranganore, Cochin, Alleppey and Quilon - long before the time of Christ. And it was on a trading vessel plying between Alexandria and the Malabar coast that St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Cranganore in 52 AD.

There he began preaching the Gospel. His teachings were accepted not only by those who chose to become Christians but also by those who chose to remain Hindus. The teachings eventually got integrated into the beliefs and traditions of the local communities, into their family history, into their songs and dances. St. Thomas established seven Christian communities or churches in Kerala. They are in Cranganore, Paravur(Kottakavu), Palayoor, Kokkamangalam, Malayattoor, Niranam, Chayal (Nilackal) and Kollam (Quilon). Throughout Kerala, one can find Christian families that are proud to claim descent from ancestors who were baptized by Apostle Thomas. Sankarapuri, Pakalomattom and Maliekal are the prominent ones. Some details of this combined tradition may be found in songs - the "Rabban Pattu", the "Veeradyan Pattu", the "Margam Kali Pattu" and others that now exist in written records.

The Church in Kerala had a high missionary spirit. Christians from Malabar spread their faith as far as Maldives and Indonesia. St. Thomas Christians were considered high caste, along the Hindu tradition, with special privileges granted by the kings. The archdeacon was the head of the Church, and Palliyogams (Parish Councils) were in charge of temporal affairs. There were women deacons. They had a liturgy-centered life with days of fasting and abstinence. Their devotion to the St. Thomas Cross was absolute. Their churches were modelled after Hindu temples. In short, the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala had blended well the ecclesiastical world of the East Syrian Church with the socio-cultural environment of their homeland. Thus, the East Syrian Church was Hindu in culture, Christian in religion and Syro-Oriental in worship.

In 1498, when the Portugese navigator Vasco da Gama landed on the Malabar coast, there were an estimated two million Christian souls across the land, and they had 1,500 churches under the jurisdiction of a single Metropolitan who lived in Angamale. Besides, the Church had, by then, expanded to the neighbouring Mylapore and Nilgiris as well as northward along the Arabian Sea coast to Goa, Saimur (Chual), Thana, Sopara, Gujarat and as far as Sind, now a part of Pakistan. This, indeed, was the Golden Age of the East Syrian Church.

The arrival of Vasco da Gama, however, marked the start of a turning point and heralded a new struggle for the East Syrian Church. Because the Portugese, who later established trading posts in Goa, Daman and Diu north of Kerala, moved against the East Syrian Church leading to tragic, ecclesiastical incidents. According to Joas de Castro, the Portugese Viceroy in Goa in 1548, the sword of the Portugese was wielded "mainly against the centuries-old Christians of Kerala". This was because only in Kerala did the laity stand steadfast against Western colonization, and maybe the Portugese, who were under the Roman Church, considered everything outside Roman as heretic.

The move against the Syrian Church was followed by Western Church establishing a European diocese in Goa in 1534. In 1557, Pope Paul IV declared Goa an archdiocese with its supremacy extending from the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa to China, and all Christians, including the East Syrian Church, brought under its jurisdiction. The East Syrian Archdiocese of Angamali then became a dependent of Goa.

This Europeanization process led to divisions in the Church, as there was considerable resistance against Western domination. The Christian communities then split into many groups - East Syrian Catholics, West Syrian Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Jacobite Syrian Orthodox, Marthoma (those who accepted the Anglican Church but with the Eastern Liturgy), Church of the East (those who accepted the Nestorian Patriarch), and the Latin Church.

In 1887 Pope Leo XIII issued the bull of "Quod Jam Pridem", which liberated the Syrians from the jurisdiction of the Latin prelate of Verapoly and placed them under two Eparchies - one in Trichur and the other in Kottayam (both in Kerala). More recently, on January 23, 1993, a papal declaration again upgraded Ernakulam to major Arch Episcopal Church with the title of Ernakulam Angamaly.

Today, there are 23 dioceses in India. Eleven of them are in Kerala with a number of priests from Kerala working in many parts of the world. Kerala has one vocation (priest brother, sister) for every 70 Catholics. No other community in the world has so many vocations. Most of the Syrian families have a priest, a religious guide and mentor.