Rev. Dr Pius Malekandathil
There is a rethinking about the coming of St Thomas the Apostle to South India. What is your talk on St Thomas landing on Kerala’s Malabar coast?
No doubt was raised until the 19th century about St Thomas coming to India. The debate was started by the protestant missionaries who raised doubts about it. Fifty lakh people believe in the apostolic origin of Syro-Malabar Church. They firmly hold that St Thomas preached the gospel to their predecessors. This is the bedrock on which the identity of one community has been built. The existence of a fifty-lakh community itself is a source material that gives credence to the idea. There are different types of source materials for history. Besides the written sources, which form only one of the several primary sources, pictorial sources and oral sources are also largely used for historical reconstruction. Even though the value of oral sources may fade very much depending upon the remoteness of the event, a careful and critical analysis of them would help the historian to see what actually must have taken place. Besides, the people themselves also are important as a primary source for historical study. We have excellent example for it in the work of Marc Bloch, who reconstructed the medieval feudal features of France by studying the rural villages of twentieth century. In India D.D. Kosambi made use of people as primary sources in his attempts to study the culture and society of ancient India. One may make use of the very people of St Thomas Christians as a source material to locate the places of their settlement and distribution, which in turn can be used as a strong corroborative evidence to cull out elements of truth from the tradition. The living tradition among the St Thomas Christians of Kerala and the increasing concentration of these Christians, all through known historical periods, in areas mentioned in the tradition as places of apostolic work, attests to the fact that there are some elements of truth in the tradition that St Thomas preached the gospel in South India. Very often some may neglect the role of people as the source material. In India source materials are very rare. They are very few in number due to the climatic condition that is not conducive to their preservation for long. Because of continuous tampering by the Portuguese missionaries and by the Synod of Diamper, all the materials have either been destroyed or have perished. But the community itself continues to exist as a resource for reconstruction. I have always upheld that the Syrian Christian community has its origin in the apostolic tradition of St Thomas.
A collective memory passed over the centuries by a group of people is considered as a valid historic proof; isn’t it the point you are trying to make?
It is an important and relevant source of history.
Historians have put out two different theories on this subject; German scholars say that St Thomas came to western India first and then he or his disciples came to south. And the other theory holds that St Thomas landed in Crangannor. Which theory looks more feasible?
These theories are based on certain evidences and inferences. I am not questioning any of these positions. I would say we find strong evidences at least from 3rd century onwards that link St Thomas with India. We find them in the Acts of Judas Thomas.
In it we read that Thomas went to the kingdom of Gundafar. The arrival of St Thomas in Northwest India is now a rather widely accepted historical event on the basis of the fact that certain coins unearthed from this region had the inscriptions of the name of the Parthian king Gundophoros, whose name figures as Gundapar in the Syriac work Acts of Judas Thomas.
You may recall Pope Benedict XVI saying that St Thomas came to western India and from there he or his disciples spread the Christian faith to the south? Do you agree with him?
Pope Benedict XVI mentioned it as a probability. All major historians believe that the apostolic activities of St Thomas in north-west India are highly probable. The Pope had made the comment against such a background. It seems that the overland trade route connecting the exchange centres of Roman Empire with the borders of India and China was used by the apostle for his India-ward journey, which finally terminated in the Parthian kingdom of Gondophoros. It seems that St Thomas must have taken this land route, which was the common route followed by the traders. It also seems that the apostle must have been guided in his travel to north-west India by some Jewish traders along the silk route. These are all probabilities. But there is no Christian community existing in that area. They may have merged into Persian Islam community. After his evangelization work in North India, St Thomas is said to have returned to Jerusalem for attending the first Jerusalem council. St Thomas is believed to have come to South India after the Jerusalem council via the Persian Gulf. A community to which the apostolic tradition is accredited with specific geography is the Syro-Malabar Church of Kerala. We arrive at this probability against the history of Jewish trade. It seems that St Thomas who reached Socotora from Jerusalem via Persian Gulf moved to Muziris in 52 AD, most probably in the company of Greek traders from Roman Egypt. The discovery of the use of monsoon wind for navigation in Indian Ocean in 45 AD by Hippalus increased the frequency of traffic between Roman Egypt and Malabar. Strabo says that during this period about 120 vessels used to leave annually to India from Roman Egypt. The references to Greek personal names make us look at the sources anew against the backdrop of prevailing Hellenised settlements on the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, particularly in Muziris and Kaveripattanam, and see whether St Thomas did really convert some members from the Greek settlers of Malabar, Coromandel coast and north-west India. Solomon also planted Jewish colonies in far-flung areas to protect his commercial interests. These trading posts eventually became the nucleus of the first great Jewish Diaspora. Later, with Assyrian conquest and Nebuchadnezzar’s raid, the migration of Jews to these places seems to have increased considerably. Against this background, it is highly probable that South India, where the Jewish settlement seems to have appeared from the time of Solomon, had a considerable number of Jews when St Thomas came, and circumstantial evidences suggest that he must have preached the Gospel to the Jews as well. Nothing can be conclusively said, but against the backdrop of significant Greek settlers in this area and frequent contacts with the Roman Egypt through Greek commercial intermediaries, it seems highly probable that the converts of St Thomas the Apostle included at least some Greek settlers. These foreigners seem to have gained superior social status, like the Chitpavans of Konkan who were incorporated into the category of Brahmins.
Were there Brahmins here then?
Brahmin is a generic term. It is immaterial to us whether the converts were from Brahmin or non-Brahmin classes, but attempts to find out the historical nucleus of the tradition compel us to touch this problem in the historical context. There were Brahmins, but the hegemonic category of Brahmins who came in around 8th century, whom M.G.S Narayanan refers to, arrived in around 8th century. They came after the result of Brahmanic migration down to south, 94 groups of Brahmins from Maharashtra who first settled in Karnataka and later in Kerala. Among these places, only Paraur and Niranam, which carry the apostolic tradition fall within the traditional 32 Brahmana Gramas.
Did the Brahmins who settled in Kerala follow the caste system?
It must be specially mentioned here that thirty-two Brahmana villages were established in Malabar following the mass exodus of Aryans to Kerala in the eighth century A.D. via the west coast of India and Karnataka. However, there were different waves of Brahmin migration to South India at different times, and a major chunk of Brahmins entered Kerala through two different routes, one through Tamil Nadu and the other through Karnataka. K.K.Pillay says that a large number of Brahmins seem to have come to Tamil Nadu from North India about 5th century B.C. onwards, earlier than the age of third Sangam. However he argues that not all Brahmins of Tamilagam had come from the North and that the existence of age long divisions of Vadamar, Brahatcharanas and Ashtasahasram among the Brahmins of the South is indicative of the fact that only some Brahmins had immigrated from the North and others had been absorbed from among the natives of Tamilagam and incorporated among the Brahmins. By 3rd century B.C., Jains, Buddhists, Ajivikas and Brahmins entered Tamil country in considerable numbers. Their influence is seen in the Tamil Brahmic inscriptions as well as in early Sangam texts.
Was there no caste system prevalent at that time?
Caste had not evolved by then. Many people are associating Brahmins among St Thomas Christians with Namboothiris. The so-called Namboothiris appeared around 8th century.
What distinguishes Namboothiris from Brahmins?
We presume that every community over a period of time gets elements of power and elements of status depending upon the positions they hold in society and power related activities. Thus the power of the so called Namboothiris grew over time. Their hegemony status arose only in the 8th century. Before that, Brahmins were just ordinary people. They were not connected with Namboothiri tradition at all. The Namboothiris probably came from Tamil Nadu.
There are some families in Syrian Christian community who claim Brahminic ancestry. How are these stories related to history? Are they just a myth?
I cannot vouch for the veracity of these claims. We should do research on each individual case. My assumption is that most of the people were Jains or Buddhists. Some might have been migrants of Jewish background. I don’t underestimate the possibility that some of them may have been Brahmins. I have noticed that some sort of unbroken priestly tradition has been there in the families of those who claim Brahmanical lineage. These families played the role of bridging communities, bridging the polluted and the non-polluted. It was a time when Brahminical ideology and temple-centred economic activities were re-shaping the social life of the Keralites by constructing and re-constructing new castes out of various professional and artisan groups, particularly during the period from 9th to 13th centuries. All the intermediaries standing between the land-owner (Brahmin) and the tiller (sudra or pulaya) were put into one or the other caste in a way that would facilitate and ensure Brahminical hegemony. In this process of social spacing, the commercially oriented Christians evolved as a trading caste, almost like the Vaisyas. Consequently, Christians were given a social function in the evolving world and in many places they were used for touching and purifying the oil and utensils used in temples and palaces that were ‘polluted’ by the touch of the artisans. Concomitantly, certain Christian families were given land near temples and palaces so that they could settle there to be at hand for touching and purifying the oil (ennathottukodukkan) and for purifying the vessels being ‘polluted’ by the touch or use of lower caste people. The common saying was “Paulose thottalathu sudhamayidum” – Paulose’s (Christian) touch will purify it. Following the new development of Brahminical hegemony and dissemination of notions of ‘pollution’ that would help the Brahmins to maintain their dominant position with Nairs subordinate to them, Christians were made to become an inevitable social ingredient in central Kerala. They in turn became a social group that bridged polluting artisan groups and the dominant castes.
Where did the Christians stand in the caste hierarchy of the Malabar Coast?
Brahmanism, particularly Saivism and Vaishnavism, swallowed most of the existing religions and denominations, like Jainism, Buddhism, charvaka etc. Only one religion survived and it was Christianity. These developments in the long run empowered the Christians of Kerala and gave them an economic identity as traders, following which, in the evolving process of social spacing, they were given the status of Vaisyas. They thus filled the gap left by the absence of Vaisyas after the mass migration of Brahmins in the eighth century and their consequent appropriation of hegemonic position. They also became instrumental in weakening the commerce of the Buddhists and Jains, who were also their religious rivals. Some crude traces of this phenomenon could be found in the Tharisapally copper plate, where it is mentioned that the Koyiladhikarikal Vijayaraghava Devan (probably a Brahmin minister) also joined hands with Ayyanadikal Thiruvadi (along with Ilamkur Rama Thiruvadi and others) in taking a decision to grant economic privileges to Tharisapally and its members, obviously to strengthen the economic and social standing of the latter. The encouragement given to Christian traders by way of privileges is to be viewed against the larger attempts of the dominant Brahmins to strike at the roots of the Buddhists and the Jains, against whom the Brahmanical religion had already started a crusade from 6th/7th century onwards. For them, empowering Christian traders was an alternative device to weaken the trade of the Buddhists and the Jains. In this process, the Christians were kept in the social ladder on a scale equivalent to that of the Vaisyas of the North. One of the most important social practices that the indigenous Christians imbibed was the practice of untouchability. They also used to wear the sacred thread (puunuul) and kudumi (tuft). They only differed from the Brahmins by the silver cross they inserted into their tuft (kudumi). The Christians also keenly observed birth-related pollution as well as pula and sradham. In the Brahmanic hegemony, they allowed Christians as a separate caste identifiable by their own caste marks.
Our ancestors used certain Buddhistic names that are prevalent even now, for example palli, mundu, chatta, appan, muthappan…etc., they are not of Sanskrit origin. How do you explain it?
Buddhism and Jainism remained in Kerala for a long time. Even now their remnants are visible in kallil temple near Perumbavoor and many other places. They all remind us of a large cultural network. The Brahmanical network was confined mostly to low-lying paddy cultivating areas for a long period of time. But the Jains and Buddhists stayed in the upper reaches where spices were cultivated. The hegemonic group preferred the low-lying paddy-cultivating zones that provided food for sustenance. The Ezhavas and the Christians preferred to be in the upper regions where spices were cultivated. The vocabulary used there by the Buddhists and the Jains eventually thus became part of their linguistic tradition. Both the people of the upland and of the low-lying paddy-cultivating zones have their own languages and each community also has its own language versions. These versions later merged with impartial public space.
The Hindutva ideology has the slogan Ghar Vapsi- return to one’s own home, return to the past, return to tradition, return to heritages. How would it help modern India?
Ghar Vapsi is part of the Hindutva ideology. They want to bring back people to the Hindu fold. My position is that if somebody has embraced a certain belief system as part of his /her spiritual journey, allow that person to follow it. Everyone should enjoy freedom of belief. Slogans like Ghar Vapsi compel people to go back to old ways and beliefs.