Early Christianity in Sri Lanka and India and Issues of Identity

9/2/2013 9:11:14 PM
Mar Aprem pictured with Anuradhapura Cross at the Anuradhapura Museum

The Apostolic Foundation of the Church in Sri Lanka and South India is linked to St Thomas, the doubting disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ.

India had Christians from the very early times, and there is no doubt that they would have had some impact on Sri Lanka especially because of the geographic proximity of these two countries and also because of the trade and commerce between them.

The Apostolic Origins and Relations with the Persian Church

The ‘East Syrian’ or Assyrian Church of the East traces its origins to the evangelistic ministry of the Apostle Thomas along with Mar Mari and Mar Addai (Syriac for Saint Thaddeus), who were among Christ’s seventy disciples (Luke 10:1).

Several of the most ancient Syriac writings such as The Doctrine of Addai, The Chronicle of Arbela and The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles record that Saint Thomas sent Thaddeus and Mari to preach to Abgar Ukkama (the Black), King of the Assyrians at Osrhoene. Eusebius, the Father of Church History, writing in 325 AD, states that he personally searched the state archives of the Assyrians in the capital city of Edessa and found official records of this apostolic visit which he translated from the Syriac originals and included in his monumental work The Ecclesiastical History, which is the first universal history of the Christian church to be written.

There is a wealth of corroborative evidence to support, and no reason to doubt the living tradition of the St. Thomas Christians that the Apostle arrived in Kondungalloor (Muziris) in Kerala in 52 AD, established seven churches, and moved on to other kingdoms, returning to Madras (Mylapore) in 72 AD where he was martyred that year. 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.

The Chronicle of Seert also states that in 470 AD Bishop Mana of Edessa translated the writings of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia from Greek into Syriac with the assistance of an Indian priest named Daniel. These translations, along with Syriac religious discourses and hymns, were sent to India. Assyrian Christian communities from Persia came to India in the 4th and 8th centuries. They found an open position in the society that they were able to fill in that there was an absence of a Vaishya or trader caste at this time. Assyrians became a type of merchant class and were welcomed by every ruling family in south India.

Fernando de Queyroz in his book The Spiritual and Temporal Conquest of Ceylon has recorded this as follows: “In the suburb of Colombo the church of the Apostle St Thomas, where resided the father of the Christians...there was preserved a Cross on a small column stone; one of those which the glorious apostle worked with his own hands, and it was the second which they had in Ceylon.”

Cosmas Indicopleustes [Indicopleustes is Greek for ‘Indian Navigator’] was a Christian merchant from Egypt who traveled to South India between 520 and 525 AD. He wrote about his experiencesin 535. He wrote about the Christians of India and Ethiopia. Cosmas documents the existence oflarge Christian communities in Southern India, Sri Lanka, and Socotra. His book, Topographia Christiana, written in the first half of the 6th century gives us very valuable and interesting information regarding Sri Lanka which he describes as “A great emporium of trade in the Indian ocean”. In his description he records the existence of a Christian church as well as a Christian community in Sri Lanka in the 6th century. He states that “Even in Taprobane, an island in further India, where the Indian sea is, there is a church of Christians with clergy and a body of believers.”

He further states that this church received the Persian Christian traders who had settled in these shores and mentions that they had even a Christian priest. Referring to the church Cosmas says: “The Island has also a church of Persian Christians who have settled there, and a Presbyter whois appointed from Persia, and a Deacon and a complete ecclesiastical ritual.”

Christianity in Sri Lanka in 6th Century or Before?

Dr T V Philip, an Indian Church historian and ecumenist, making his observations on this statement of Cosmas says:

“From the above observations of Cosmas it is often assumed that in Ceylon in the sixth century there were only Persian Christians who settled there and there were no indigenous Christians. We need to remember that Cosmas was a Persian and a Nestorian and it is understandable if his main interest was in the Persian Christian communities in places which he mentioned in his book. Moreover, he did not personally visit all the places hementions and did not claim to have made a complete survey of Christianity in those places.”

By the very fact that Cosmas writes “I do not know whether there be any Christians in the parts beyond it” it is clear that he is not making a comprehensive observation about all the Christian communities in Sri Lanka at that time. Furthermore, there is no evidence to connect the Anuradhapura cross with a Nestorian community that is supposed to have lived in Sri Lanka.

Once again, as Philip says in his book: “We do not know when Christianity came to Ceylon, probably earlier than the sixth century as there were Christian communities in South India from the First Century onwards”.

The bishops Mar Sabr-ishu and Mar Peroz strengthened the Assyrian community upon their arrival in 794 AD, bringing with them more settlers as well as spiritual guidance. The Assyrian immigrant merchant community in India brought both material and spiritual prosperity to Kerala.

Islamic intolerance

Islamic intolerance decimated the churches on Socotra and elsewhere. The Church of India is the only living testimony of the former missionary glory of the Assyrian Church. According to Stewart, “With the exception of the small remnant in the neighbourhood of Qudshanis in Kurdistan, the only section of the Nestorian Church that has been able to maintain its distinctive identity down through the centuries to the present time is the Syrian Christian community of South-West India.”

After the 7th century, there is no literary trace of Persian Christianity in Sri Lanka. None of the medieval travelers who visited the island mentioned Nestorian Christians there. It seems that Persian Christian communities disappeared on the island after the Islamic conquest of Persia.

More conclusive assessment of Persian Christians in Sri Lanka cannot be completed unless more related archaeological discoveries are made.

Evidence of the Persian Church in India and Sri Lanka: Crosses

The Cross is the primary symbol of the Christian faith representing the cross on which Jesus Christ died. It is the most venerated symbol among Christians. There are several ancient artifacts of the Christians of India including the crosses of the Old Syrian church at Kottayam and on Saint Thomas’ Mount near Mylapore. Both date back to the 7th or 8th Century. The inscriptions on these crosses are written in Pahlavi, the language of the Persian Sassanid Empire. The other crosses at Kottayam date back to the 10th century and bear inscriptions written in Pahlavi and Syriac. One such ancient inscription reads, “My Lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras, the son of Chaharbukht, the Syrian [Assyrian], who cut this.”

A second cross was uncovered on a small clay seal excavated at the ancient port of Mçntota (Mantai) by John Conswell, in 1984. It bears resemble to the Anuradhapura cross. The class seal also has a Pahlavi inscription which clearly establishes its Persian origin.

Identity Crisis

In more recent times, People who became Christians through the work of Western missionaries were forced to rethink their identity. Nationalism became very prominent in Sri Lanka after Independence. This situation promoted national Christians to indigenise their religious expressions.

People desired to experience the gospel in a truly Sri Lankan context, expressing their faith and worship of God in their own language, arts, music, and other cultural idioms. The chapel is decorated with Sri Lankan woodcarvings. The congregation remove their footwear and sit on the floor. Indigenous musical instruments such as tabla, violin and sitar mainly accompany worship. Christian ministers who will work in the community with a sound understanding of Sri Lankan realities and make bridges between various socio-cultural and religious groups.

The Present Situation of Christianity in India and Sri Lanka

India has about 30 million Christians which include Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Pentecostal churches. The Indian Census has established that Hinduism accounts for 80.5% of the population of India. The second largest religion is Islam at about 13.4% of the population. The third largest religion is Christianity at 2.3%. The fourth largest religion is Sikhism at about 1.9%. In Sri Lanka, the Buddhist population is 70.2%, Hindu 12.6%, Islam 9.7%, and Christian 7.4%. Of these Christians, 82.4% are Roman Catholic and the rest are 17.6%.

Kerala is 50% Hindu, 28% Muslim and 22% Christian. Kerala’s literacy rate is 90%, the highest in India. It is the most progressive state in India. Its living standard and progress is almost equal to that of Europe. Within these Christians there are Syrian Christians, Latin (Roman Catholic), Protestant, Anglican and so on are included. The Syrian Christians are now divided into seven denominations:

  1. Chaldean Syrian Church (Assyrian Church of the East)
  2. Syro-Malabar Catholic Church
  3. Syrian Orthodox Jacobite Church
  4. Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
  5. Malabar Independent Syrian Church, Thozhiyur.
  6. Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church
  7. Syro-Malankara Catholic Church

Summary and Conclusion

Personally speaking, my Cathedral in Trichur (established in 1815) has a connection with the church in Sri Lanka going back a few years before the Anuradhapura Cross was discovered. In 1899, Mar Abdisho Thondanat Metropolitan, my predecessor consecrated Luis Mariano Soares by the name Mar Basilius. He was given authority over Tamil regions in Madurai, Dindigal etc. Mar Abdisho died in Trichur in November 1900. Mar Basilius came to Ceylon in December 1902 and worked here for about 2 years. He is believed to have died of cholera in 1904.