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Malankara Church

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The Malankara Church is a church of the Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala, India, with particular emphasis on the part of the community that joined Archdeacon Mar Thoma in swearing to resist the authority of the Portuguese Padroado in 1653. This faction soon entered into a relationship with the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, and was thereafter often known as the Malankara Syrian Church.


As part of the Saint Thomas Christian community, the church traced its origins to the evangelical activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century. As an independent faction, it originated in the first major split within the Saint Thomas Christian community. Historically, the Thomas Christians had been united in leadership and liturgy, and were part of the Church of the East, based in Persia. However, the collapse of the Church of the East's hierarchy in Asia left the province of India effectively isolated, and through the 16th century, the Portuguese, recently established in Goa, forcefully drew the Thomas Christians into Latin Rite Catholicism. Resentment of these measures led the majority of the community to join the archdeacon, Thoma, in swearing never to submit to the Portuguese in the Coonan Cross Oath. Several months later Thoma was ordained as the first indigenous Metropolitan of Malankara.

Following the Oath, in 1661 Pope Alexander VII established a new East Syrian Rite hierarchy in communion with Rome for the Saint Thomas Christians; by the next year 84 of the 116 communities had joined, forming what is now the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The remaining 32 communities stayed independent, and formed a relationship with the Syriac Orthodox Church. Over the next centuries this relationship strengthened, and the Malankara Church adopted a variant of the West Syrian Rite known as the Malankara Rite (as opposed to the previous East Syrian usage) and entered into full communion with the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. However, through this time the church experienced a series of splits, resulting in large numbers of followers breaking away.

In 1772 a Syriac Orthodox bishop consecrated Kattumangatt Kurien (Mar Cyril) as his successor against the wishes of the Metropolitan, Mar Dionysius I; Cyril led a faction that eventually became the Malabar Independent Syrian Church. In the 19th century, a reform movement inspired by British missionaries led to the formation of the independent Mar Thoma Syrian Church, while the rest of the church, resistant to British influence, came under the direct jurisdiction of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch in 1876. In 1912, a dispute over authority between supporters of the Metropolitan and supporters of the Patriarch finally divided the Malankara Church, with the former group becoming the essentially independent Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church under the Catholicos of the East and the latter maintaining ties with the Patriarch as the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church. Motions by the church leaders and two Supreme Court decisions in the 20th century failed to heal the rift. In 1930, a reunion group split away and entered into communion with the Catholic Church as the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church with its own liturgy. |


The word Malankara derives from the name of the island of Maliankara near Muziris, which according to tradition was the first place Thomas the Apostle landed in India. Initially the terms "Malankara Christians" or "Malankara Nasranis" were applied to all Saint Thomas Christians, but following the split the term was generally restricted to the faction loyal to Mar Thoma I, distinguishing them from the Catholic faction. Later, many of the churches that subsequently branched off have maintained the word in their names.

At the time of the split, the branch affiliated with Mar Thoma was called the Puttankuttukar, or "New Party", while the branch that entered into Catholic obedience was designated the Pazhayakuttukar, or "Old Party". This latter group evolved into the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. These appellations have been somewhat controversial, as both groups considered themselves the true heirs to the Saint Thomas tradition, and saw the other as heretical.

Following the association with the Syriac Orthodox Church, the church was often known as the Malankara Syrian Church (Malayalam: മലങ്കര സുറിയാനി സഭ) in reference to their connection to the West Syrian tradition. As such they were often known as "Jacobites", "Syrian Jacobites", or "Jacobite Syrians", a reference to the Syriac Orthodox Church's connection to Jacob Baradaeus. After the split between Metropolitan- and the Patriarch-supporting factions, the Jacobite designation has been chiefly associated with the latter group, who emphasize their connection with Antioch.

Early history of Christianity in India

As a Saint Thomas Christian group, the Malankara Church traced its origins to Thomas the Apostle, said to have proselytized in India in the 1st century. Different strains of the tradition have him arriving either by sea or by land. There is no direct contemporary evidence for Thomas coming to India, but such a trip would certainly have been possible for a Roman Jew to have made; communities such as the Cochin Jews and the Bene Israel are known to have existed in India around that time. The earliest text connecting Thomas to India is the Acts of Thomas, written in Edessa perhaps in the 2nd century. Some early Indian sources, such as the "Thomas Parvam" or "Song of Thomas", further expand on the tradition of the apostle's arrival and activities in India and beyond. Generally he is described as arriving in the neighbourhood of Maliankara and establishing Seven Churches, the Ezharapallikal: Cranganore (ml:കൊടുങ്ങല്ലൂര്‍), Paravur (Kottakavu)(ml:കോട്ടക്കാവ്), Palayoor (ml:പാലൂർ ), Gokkamangalam (ml:ഗോക്കമംഗലം), Niranam (ml:നിരണം ), Chayal (ml:ചായൽ ) and Kollam (Quilon) (ml:കൊല്ലം ). Eusebius of Caesarea mentions that his mentor Pantaenus found a Christian community in India in the 2nd century, while references to Thomas' Indian mission appear in the works of 3rd- and 4th-century writers of the Roman Empire, including Ambrose of Milan, Gregory of Nazianzus, Jerome, and Ephrem the Syrian, showing that the Thomas tradition was well established across the Christian world by that time.

Whatever the historicity of the Thomas tradition, the earliest organised Christian presence in India dates around the 3rd century, when East Syrian settlers and missionaries from Persia, members of what became the Church of the East or Nestorian Church, established themselves in Kerala. The Thomas Christians trace the further growth of their community to the mission of Thomas of Cana, a Nestorian from the Middle East said to have relocated to Kerala some time between the 4th and 8th century. The subgroup of the Saint Thomas Christians known as the Southists trace their lineage to the high-born Thomas of Cana, while the group known as the Northists claim descent from Thomas the Apostle's indigenous converts who intermarried with Thomas of Cana's children by his concubine or second wife.

As the community grew and immigration by East Syrians increased, the connection with the Church of the East, centred in the Persian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, strengthened. From the early 4th century the Patriarch of the Church of the East provided India with clergy, holy texts, and ecclesiastical infrastructure, and around 650 Patriarch Ishoyahb III solidified the Church of the East's jurisdiction over the Saint Thomas Christian community. In the 8th century Patriarch Timothy I organised the community as the Ecclesiastical Province of India, one of the church's illustrious Provinces of the Exterior. After this point the Province of India was headed by a metropolitan bishop, provided from Persia, the "Metropolitan-Bishop of the Seat of Saint Thomas and the Whole Christian Church of India". His metropolitan see was probably in Cranganore, or (perhaps nominally) in Mylapore, where the shrine of Thomas was located. Under him were a varying number of bishops, as well as a native Archdeacon, who had authority over the clergy and who wielded a great amount of secular power.

Cheppeds: Collection of deeds on copper plates

The Rulers of Kerala, in appreciation for their assistance, gave to the Malankara Nazranis, three deeds on copper plates. They gave the Nasranis various rights and privileges which were written on copper plates. These are known as Cheppeds, Royal Grants, Sasanam etc. Five sheets of them are now in the possession of Mar Thoma Syrian Church headquarters at Thiruvalla.

  1. Iravi Corttan Deed: In 1225 AD Sri Vira Raghava Chakravarti gave a deed to Iravi Corttan ( Eravi Karthan) of Mahadevarpattanam in 774. Two Brahmin families are witness to this deed showing that Brahmins were in Kerala by the 8th century.
  2. Tharissa palli Deed I: Perumal Sthanu Ravi Gupta (844-885) gave a deed in 849 AD, to Isodatta Virai for Tharissa Palli (church) at Curakkeni Kollam. According to historians, this is the first deed in Kerala that gives the exact date.
  3. Tharissa palli Deed II: Continuation of the above, given after 849 AD.

These plates detail privileges awarded to the community by the then rulers. These influenced the development of the social structure in Kerala and privileges, rules for the communities . These are considered as one of the most important legal documents in the history of Kerala.


The position of archdeacon – the highest for clergy who are not a bishop – had great importance in the church of India in the centuries leading up to the formation of an independent Malankara Church. Though technically subordinate to the metropolitan, the archdeacon wielded great ecclesiastical and secular power, to the extent that he was considered the secular leader of the community and served as effective head of the Indian Church in times when the province was absent a bishop. Unlike the metropolitan, who was evidently always an East Syrian sent by the patriarch, the archdeacon was a native Saint Thomas Christian. In the documented period the position was evidently hereditary, belonging to the Pakalomattam family, who claimed a privileged connection to Thomas the Apostle.

Details on the archidiaconate prior to the arrival of the Portuguese are elusive, but Patriarch Timothy I (780 – 823) called the Archdeacon of India the "head of the faithful in India", implying an elevated status by at least that time. In the recorded period of its history, the office of archdeacon was substantially different in India than in the rest of the Church of the East or other Christian churches. In the broader Church of the East, each bishop was attended by an archdeacon, but in India, there was only ever one archdeacon, even when the province had multiple bishops serving it.

Following the collapse of the Church of the East's hierarchy in most of Asia in the 14th century, India was effectively cut off from the church's heartland in Mesopotamia and formal contact was severed. By the late 15th century India had had no metropolitan for several generations, and the authority traditionally associated with him had been vested in the archdeacon. In 1491 the archdeacon sent envoys to the Patriarch of the Church of the East, as well as to the Coptic Pope of Alexandria and to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, requesting a new bishop for India. The Patriarch of the Church of the East Shemʿon IV Basidi responded by consecrating two bishops, Thoma and Yuhanon, and dispatching them to India. These bishops helped rebuild the ecclesiastical infrastructure and reestablish fraternal ties with the patriarchate, but the years of separation had greatly affected the structure of the Indian church. Though receiving utmost respect, the metropolitan was treated as a guest in his own diocese; the Archdeacon was firmly established as the real power in the Malankara community.

Arrival of the Portuguese

At the time the Portuguese arrived in India in 1498, the Saint Thomas Christians were in a difficult position. Though prosperous owing to their large stake in the spice trade and protected by a formidable militia, the tumultuous political climate of the time had placed the small community under pressure from the forces of the powerful rajas of Calicut, Cochin, and the various smaller kingdoms in the area. When the Portuguese under Vasco da Gama arrived on the South Indian coast, the leaders of the Saint Thomas community greeted them and proffered a formal alliance to their fellow Christians. The Portuguese, who had keen interest in implanting themselves in the spice trade and in expanding the domain of their bellicose form of Christianity, jumped at this opportunity.

The Portuguese brought to India a particularly militant brand of Christianity, the product of several centuries of struggle during the Reconquista, which they hoped to spread across the world. Facilitating this objective was the Padroado Real, a series of treaties and decrees in which the Pope conferred upon the Portuguese government certain authority in ecclesiastical matters in the foreign territories they conquered. Upon reaching India the Portuguese quickly ensconced themselves in Goa and established a church hierarchy; soon they set themselves to bringing the native Christians under their dominion. Towards this goal, the colonial establishment felt it necessary to conduct the Saint Thomas Christians fully into the Latin Rite, both in bringing them into conformity with Latin church customs and in subjecting them to the authority of the Archbishop of Goa.

Following the death of Metropolitan Mar Jacob in 1552, the Portuguese became more aggressive in their efforts to subjugate the Saint Thomas Christians. Protests on the part of the natives were frustrated by events back in the Church of the East's Mesopotamian heartland, which left them devoid of consistent leadership. In 1552, the year of Jacob's death, a schism in the Church of the East resulted in there being two rival patriarchates, one of which entered into communion with the Catholic Church, and the other of which remained independent. At different times both patriarchs sent bishops to India, but the Portuguese were consistently able to outmaneuver the newcomers or else convert them to Latin Rite Catholicism outright. In 1575 the Padroado declared that neither patriarch could appoint prelates to the community without Portuguese consent, thereby cutting the Thomas Christians off from their hierarchy.

By 1599 the last Metropolitan, Abraham, had died, and the Archbishop of Goa, Aleixo de Menezes, had secured the submission of the young Archdeacon George, the highest remaining representative of the native church hierarchy. That year Menezes convened the Synod of Diamper, which instituted a number of structural and liturgical reforms to the Indian church. At the synod, the parishes were brought directly under the Archbishop's authority, certain "superstitious" customs were anathematized, and the indigenous liturgy, the Malabar Rite, was purged of elements unacceptable by the Latin standards. Though the Saint Thomas Christians were now formally part of the Catholic Church, the conduct of the Portuguese over the next decades fueled resentment in parts of the community, ultimately leading to open resistance.

Coonan Cross and the independent church

Over the next several decades, tensions seethed between the Latin prelates and what remained of the native hierarchy. This came to a head in 1641 with the ascension of two new protagonists on either side of the contention: Francis Garcia, the new Archbishop of Kodungalloor, and Archdeacon Thomas, the nephew and successor to Archdeacon George. In 1652, the escalating situation was further complicated by the arrival in India of a mysterious figure named Ahatallah.

Ahatallah arrived in Mylapore in 1652, claiming to be the rightful Patriarch of Antioch who had been sent by the Catholic pope to serve as "Patriarch of the Whole of India and of China". Ahatallah's true biography is obscure, but some details have been established. He appears to have been a Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Damascus who converted to Catholicism and went to Rome in 1632. He then returned to Syria in order to bring the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Hidayat Allah into communion with Rome. He had not accomplished this by the time Hidayat Allah died in 1639, after which point Ahatallah began claiming he was Hidayat Allah's rightful successor. In 1646 he was in Egypt at the court of the Coptic Pope Mark VI, who dispatched him to India in 1652, evidently in response to a request for aid from Archdeacon Thomas. Reckoning him an impostor, the Portuguese arrested him, but allowed him to meet with members of the Saint Thomas Christian clergy, whom he impressed greatly. The Portuguese put him on a ship bound for Cochin and Goa, and Archdeacon Thomas led his militia to Cochin demanding to meet with the Patriarch. The Portuguese refused, asserting that he was a dangerous invader and that the ship had already sailed on to Goa.

Ahatallah was never heard from again in India, and rumours soon spread that Archbishop Garcia had disposed of him before he ever reached Goa. Contemporary accounts allege that he was drowned in Cochin harbour, or even that the Portuguese burned him at the stake. In reality, it appears that Ahatallah did in fact reach Goa, from whence he was sent on to Europe, but he evidently died in Paris before reaching Rome where his case was to be heard. In any event, Garcia's dismissiveness towards the Saint Thomas Christians' appeals only embittered the community further.

This was the last straw for the Saint Thomas Christians, and in 1653 Thomas and representatives of the community met at the Church of Our Lady in Mattancherry to take bold action. In a great ceremony before a crucifix and lighted candles, they swore a solemn oath that they would never obey Garcia or the Portuguese again, and that they accepted only the Archdeacon as their shepherd. The Malankara Church and all its successor churches regard this declaration, known as the Coonan Cross Oath (Malayalam: കൂനൻ കുരിശു സത്യം), after the outdoor cross in the churchyard, as the moment when their church regained its independence.

Later development

The oppressive rule of the Portuguese padroado provoked a violent reaction on the part of the indigenous Christian community. The first solemn protest took place in 1653, known as the Coonan Kurishu Satyam (Coonan Cross Oath). Under the leadership of Archdeacon Thoma, the St. Thomas Christians publicly took an oath in Mattancherry, Cochin, that they would not obey the Portuguese Catholic bishops and the Jesuit missionaries. Until the Portuguese arrival, Malankara Christians never even heard of the Roman Catholic Pope.Unfortunately there was no Metropolitan present in the Malankara Church at that time. Hence in the same year, at Alangad, Archdeacon Thoma was ordained, by the laying on of hands of twelve priests, as the first known indigenous Metropolitan of Kerala, under the name Mar Thoma I. The Portuguese missionaries attempted for reconciliation with Saint Thomas Christians but was not successful. Later Pope Alexander VII sent the Syrian bishop Joseph Sebastiani at the head of a Carmelite delegation who succeeded in convincing majority of Saint Thomas Christians, including Palliveettil Chandy Kathanar and Kadavil Chandy Kathanar that the consecration of Archdeacon as Metropolitan was not legitimate as per the traditional apostolic standards. Later Palliveettil Chandy Kathanar was consecrated as the bishop for the Syrian Catholics with the historic title 'The Metropolitan and the Gate of all India' which denotes a Quasi Patriarchal status with all India jurisdiction. This led to the first permanent split in the Saint Thomas Christian community. Thereafter, the faction affiliated with the Catholic Church under Parambil Mar Chandy was designated the Pazhayakoottukar, or "Old Party", while the branch affiliated with Mar Thoma was called the Puthankoottukar, or "New Party". These appellations have been somewhat controversial, as both groups considered themselves the true heirs to the Saint Thomas tradition, and saw the other as heretical.

After the Coonan Cross Oath, between 1661 and 1662, out of the 116 churches, the Catholics claimed eighty-four churches, and the Archdeacon Mar Thoma I with thirty-two churches. The eighty-four churches and their congregations were the body from which the Syro Malabar Catholic Church and Chaldean Syrian Church have descended. The other thirty-two churches and their congregations were the body from which the Malankara Syrian Churches (Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Malabar Independent Syrian Church, Malankara MarThoma Syrian Church and Syro-Malankara Catholic Church originated. The Catholic faction constantly challenged the legitimacy of the consecration of Archdeacon as Metropolitan .This made it essential to rectify the illegetimacy of the consecration of Archdeacon as Metropolitan. In 1665, Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel, a Bishop sent by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch arrived in India and the Saint Thomas Christians under the leadership of the Archdeacon welcomed him. Gregorios Abdal Jaleel regularised the consecration of Archdeacon as Metropolitan as per the apostolic standards of Kaiveppu(Traditional legitimate way of laying hands by a valid Bishop). This resulted in the spiritual authority of the Antiochean Patriarchate and the reaffirmation of the orthodox faith in the Church. The 18th century saw the gradual introduction of West Syrian liturgy and script to the Malabar Coast, a process that continued through the 19th century.

The arrival of Mar Gregorios in 1665, marked the introduction of Oriental Orthodoxy in the Malankara Church.

The Malankara Church experienced a series of splits over the centuries, resulting in the formation of several churches, some of which embraced the jurisdiction of foreign churches, while others remained autocephalous and autonomous churches.

The churches that share the Malankara Church tradition are:

  1. Jacobite Syrian Christian Church: an autonomous oriental orthodox church under the jurisdiction of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch.
  2. Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church: an autonomous and autocephalous oriental orthodox church under the jurisdiction of the autocephalous Catholicos of the East.
  3. Malabar Independent Syrian Church: an autonomous and autocephalous church under the jurisdiction of its own independent Metropolitan.
  4. Mar Thoma Syrian Church: an autonomous Oriental Syrian church under the jurisdiction of Marthoma Metropolitan.
  5. Syro-Malankara Catholic Church: a self-governing Eastern Catholic church within the Catholic communion.


Malankara Church Wikipedia