“Of course, ultimately it is not important whether Thomas came to Kerala or not. Even if it were found to be true, Christianity remains an erroneous belief system, and … a foreign religion, whether imported in the 1st or the 4th century. But because Hindus have set great store in refuting the Thomas legend, the secularists invest a lot in supporting it, here be this article, more usually in pro-belief pronouncements, and the media will censor any serious scepticism about it.” – Dr Koenraad Elst
Doubting Thomas and the Dalrymple massage of the Kerala Thomas myth – Koenraad Elst
The article (see below) by Dalrymple is a wonderful exercise in pushing the beliefs of the “minorities” (in fact local daughters of a global movement, helped by the foreign headquarters with resources and strategy) to the utmost. There is no document supporting the fond belief of the Christians, ritually incanted by all politicians and journalists whenever they mention Christianity. And there still is none after Dalrymple’s article, a fact that all his innuendo about new insights is meant to obscure. Not even the apocryphal Acts of Thomas could prove this, either before or after Dalrymple’s intervention. These only mention Thomas going east to a desert country where people speak Iranian. This is clearly not lush tropical Malayali-speaking Kerala. With all his rhetoric slamming open doors, such as that there was a lot of trade between Malabar and the Roman empire (which we already knew), he has only one piece of hard evidence to claim, viz. the coins by king Gondophares confirming the Acts’ mention of such a king, and that already by 19th-century British archaeologists. Now, if there had been such a find, it would have been plastered all over the front pages, and every Christian dignitary would quote it on every suitable occasion. I may have missed something, but I haven’t heard that. Such a discovery would, among other things, have to transfer Gondophares from Afghanistan to Kerala and turn his name from standard Iranian to Malayalam. Note that Dalrymple, ever careful to specify North versus South India, here leaves that crucial specification in the dark. When the very erudite Pope Benedict XVI said in 2006 that Thomas came to “Western India”, and that it was not he but “Christianity” that then went on to Southern India, he was speaking in full consciousness of the relevant evidence, of all that Dalrymple here suggests as proof in favour of the Christian belief.
He commits all the errors that our first-year course of Historical Method warned us against. If someone spreads a story (say, the Christians arriving in Kerala from Persia in the 4th century, whose leader Thomas Cananeus was confused with Saint Thomas), and then hundred consumers of the story reproduce the story, these are not “a hundred sources in unison”, this is just one source. So all his talk about how many believers there are (including gullible Hindus) can over-awe a layman, but mean nothing to a historian.
Of course, ultimately it is not important whether Thomas came to Kerala or not. Even if it were found to be true, Christianity remains an erroneous belief system and a foreign religion whether imported in the 1st or the 4th century. But because Hindus have set great store in refuting the Thomas legend, the secularists invest a lot in supporting it, here be this article, more usually in pro-belief pronouncements, and the media will censor any serious scepticism about it. Except that they will greatly highlight any anti article on condition that it also covers itself in ridicule by espousing some P.N. Oak type of history rewriting.
And note the irony: one always speaks of “doubting Thomas”, also the title of Dalrymple’s film, but the finality of this article is to provide intellectual respectability to the all-out secular effort of suppressing doubt about the Thomas myth. – Bharatkalyan97, 11 August 2015
The incredible journey – William Dalrymple
The rains come to Kerala for months at a time. It is the greenest state in India: hot and humid, still and brooding. The soil is so fertile that as you drift up the lotus-choked waterways, the trees close in around you, as twisting tropical fan vaults of palm and bamboo arch together in the forest canopy. Mango trees hang heavy over the fishermen’s skiffs; pepper vines creep through the fronds of the waterside papaya orchards.
In this country live a people who believe that St Thomas – the apostle of Jesus who famously refused to believe in the resurrection “until I have placed my hands in the holes left by the nails and the wound left by the spear” – came to India from Palestine after the Resurrection, and that he baptised their ancestors. Moreover, this is not a modern tradition: it has been the firm conviction of the Christians here since at least the sixth century AD.
In 594 AD, the French monastic chronicler Gregory of Tours met a wandering Greek monk who reported that, in southern India, he had met Christians who had told him about St Thomas’s missionary journey to India and who had shown him the tomb of the apostle. Over the centuries to come, almost every western traveller to southern India, from Marco Polo to the first Portuguese conquistadors, reported the same story.
The legend of St Thomas led to the first-ever recorded journey to India by an Englishman: according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Alfred (he of the burned cakes) sent Bishop Sighelm of Sherborne “to St Thomas in India”; years later, the bishop returned, carrying with him “precious stones and the odiferous essences of that country”.
The stories that the travellers brought back with them varied little: all said how in India, St Thomas was universally believed to have arrived in AD 52 from Palestine by boat; that he had travelled down the Red Sea and across the Persian Gulf, and that he landed at the great Keralan port of Cranganore, the spice trading centre to which the Roman Red Sea merchant fleet would head each year, to buy pepper and Indian slave girls for the Mediterranean market.
In Kerala, St Thomas was said to have converted the local Brahmins with the aid of miracles and to have built seven churches. He then headed eastwards to the ancient temple town of Mylapore, now in the suburbs of Madras. There the saint was opposed by the orthodox Brahmins of the temple, and finally martyred. His followers built a tomb and monastery over his grave which, said the travellers, was now a pilgrimage centre for Muslims and Hindus, as well as Christians in southern India.
Although the historicity of the legend is unprovable, the modern St Thomas Christians – as they still call themselves – regard this tradition as more than a myth: it is an article of faith which underpins religious beliefs, identity and their place in Indian society. It is a tradition they go to extraordinary lengths to preserve and to propagate – not least by establishing what is almost certainly Christianity’s only troupe of dancing nuns.
Moreover they are agreed – as are many of their Hindu neighbours – that St Thomas is not dead: that he is still present in Kerala, guarding his followers and guiding his church. This was palpable at the small “miracle church” of Putenangadi, south of Cochin. At a time when the violent conflict between Hindus and Christians in north India was making headlines across the world, members of both faiths could be found side by side crammed into the same church, all convinced that St Thomas was present in the building to answer the prayers of his devotees.
At the back of his church, I came across an old Hindu woman named Jaya. I asked her why she chose to pray in a Christian church: “So that I can be relieved of all my troubles,” she replied. “It is that faith that brings me here. If there’s anything I need, I ask St Thomas for it.”
“But, as a Hindu, why would you come to a Christian church?,” I asked. “Why not go to the temple?” “Because I have faith,” she repeated simply. “When I have difficulties, St Thomas solves them for me. Of course, I go to the temple too. But any big problem I have, I come here and I pray, and my prayers are always answered. For me, St Thomas is definitely alive.”
Later, Jaya introduced me to her Christian friend, Miriam. “In my experience, praying to St Thomas here is always effective,” said Miriam. “Whatever I need I pray for and my prayers are heard and answered. Of course, there is God, but it is St Thomas’s name that we call. He is all I have.”
The trail of St Thomas’s journey to India begins thousands of miles from Kerala in the deserts of the Middle East. In the sixth century, the Byzantine empire was beginning to crumble under a wave of attacks, and the great classical cities of the east Mediterranean were falling into ruin and decay. As their libraries and universities were burned down or deserted, many of the most important manuscripts were preserved in the library of a remote monastery in the deserts of the Sinai now known as St Catherine’s.
Its great walls and sheer isolation preserved it from attacks for centuries. Protected from their enemies, the monks accumulated one of the greatest treasuries of icons and illuminated manuscripts in the Christian world. Scholars who penetrated the region in the 19th century were astonished to find in the monastery a library of unmatched richness, containing lost works by great classical authors and the oldest extant copy of the New Testament.
But perhaps the strangest discovery of all was a previously unknown early Christian text dating from the fourth century AD entitled the Acts of St Thomas. The manuscript told a story that had been forgotten in the traditions of the western Church. According to the Acts, St Thomas was Jesus’s twin (the Syriac for Thomas – Te’oma – means twin, as does his Greek name, Didymos); like his brother, he was a carpenter from Galilee.
After Jesus’s death, according to the Acts, the apostle had been summoned to India – and his martyrdom – by a mysterious king, Gondophares. Biblical scholars of the 19th century were at first very sceptical of the Acts of St Thomas. They correctly pointed out that the story contained many clearly apocryphal Gnostic elements, and that the earliest surviving version of the text, written in fourth century Mesopotamia, dated from at least two centuries after the events described; up to the beginning of this century, the document was sometimes dismissed as a pious romance.
Nevertheless over the past 100 years, as research has progressed both into ancient Indian history and the links between India and the Roman Middle East, a series of remarkable discoveries have gone a long way to prove that the story contained in the Acts seems to be built on surprisingly solid historical foundations. First, British archaeologists working in late 19th-century India began to find hoards of coins belonging to a previously unknown Indian king: the Rajah Gondophares, who ruled from AD 19 to AD 45. If St Thomas had ever been summoned to India, it would have been Rajah Gondophares who would have done it, just as the Acts had always maintained.
The fact that the Acts had accurately preserved the name of an obscure Indian rajah, whose name and lineage had disappeared, implied that it must contain at least a nucleus of genuine historical information. Archaeological discoveries have since confirmed many other details of the story, revealing that maritime contacts between the Roman world and India were much more extensive than anyone had realised.
In the 1930s, Sir Mortimer Wheeler discovered and excavated a major Roman trading station on the south Indian coast, while other scholars unearthed references showing that in Thomas’s time, the trick of sailing with the monsoon had just been discovered, reducing the journey time from the Red Sea to India to just under 40 days. According to a previously overlooked remark by Strabo, first- century geographer and historian, 200 Roman trading vessels a year were making the annual journey to the bazaars of Malabar and back.
More intriguing still, analysis of Roman coin hoards in India has shown that the Roman spice trade peaked exactly in the middle of the first century AD. All this showed that if St Thomas had wanted to come to India, the passage from Palestine, far from being near-impossible, would in fact have been easier, more frequent and probably cheaper than at any time in the next 1,500 years – until Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to the Indies in 1498.
Scholars discovered further confirmation of the Acts in the practices of the St Thomas Christians. Since the second world war, theologians have become increasingly aware of the Jewishness of Jesus and his first disciples: it has become apparent, for example, that the first Christians of the early church – those who knew Jesus and his teaching personally – would have carried on going to the temple in Jerusalem, performing sacrifices and circumcisions, and obeying the Jewish food laws.
If St Thomas had carried Christianity to India, it is likely that he would have taken a distinctly more Jewish form than the Gentile-friendly version developed for the Greeks of Antioch by St Paul and later exported to Europe. Hence the importance of the fact that some of the St Thomas Christian churches to this day retain Judeo-Christian practices long dropped in the west – such as the celebration of the solemn Passover feast.
Hence also the significance of the St Thomas Christians still using the two earliest Christian liturgies in existence: the Mass of Addai and Mari, and the Liturgy of St James, once used by the early Church of Jerusalem. More remarkable still, these ancient services are still partly sung in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and St Thomas.
The more you investigate the evidence, the more irresistible is the conclusion that whether or not St Thomas himself came to India, he certainly could have. And if he didn’t make the journey, it seems certain that some other very early Christian missionary did, for there is certainly evidence for a substantial Christian population in India by at least the third century.
And if there is no documentary proof to clinch the case, there is at least a very good reason for its absence: for the entire historical documentation of the St Thomas Christians was reduced to ashes in the 16th century – not by Muslims or Hindus, but by a newly arrived European Christian power: the Portuguese. As far as the Portuguese colonial authorities were concerned, the St Thomas Christians were heretics, an idea confirmed by their belief in astrology and reincarnation, and the Hindu-style sculptures of elephants and dancing girls found carved on their crosses.
Notions that they might also have maintained early Christian traditions predating the arrival of the faith in Europe were dismissed out of hand. The Inquisition was brought in, and the historical records of the St Thomas Christians put to the flame. Yet the old stories did survive, locked in the minds and memories of Christians in inaccessible Keralan backwaters.
In songs and dances passed on from father to son and teacher to pupil, they preserved intact many of their most ancient traditions. Scholars now believe that if the answer to the riddle of the legends of St Thomas lies anywhere, it is in this rich and largely unstudied Keralan oral tradition.
The man who has done more than anything to preserve this heritage is a plump Catholic priest and village schoolteacher named Father Jacob Vellian. Working in isolation in his spare time, with little help and pitiful resources, Fr Jacob has since 1973 single-handedly travelled from village to village in Kerala systematically collecting Christian songs and dances about St Thomas’s travels and exploits in India.
On two occasions, hidden in remote villages, he stumbled across palm-leaf books from the 16th century, which preserved other fragments of the songs and ballads in tiny Malayalam lettering: the oldest surviving documentation of the St Thomas Christians. There were, he discovered, still current in the Keralan countryside, hundreds of songs recording the deeds of St Thomas, as well two ancient full-length ballads, the older of which, The Margam Kali Pattu or Song of the Way, was of epic proportions.
Both these ballads predated the coming of the Portuguese and both, from their very archaic language, showed every sign of dating from the earliest centuries AD.
Almost everywhere Fr Vellian found the oral tradition on the verge of extinction, with the young people unwilling to carry on the job of learning by heart the complex stanzas. In several places he was able to record lost fragments of the epics just weeks before the last of the asans (or village bards) died, taking their songs to their grave. “Over the years I have tried to meet with every Christian asan in Kerala,” Vellian told me. “Most of them were illiterate: isolated old men who were only barely aware of the importance of what they were clinging on to. Some had a few disciples and were very eager to teach what they knew; others had none. But no one was trying to write down what they had preserved. No one was promoting them or rewarding them for their work.
“As a result much must have been lost: not one asan knew the whole of the two longest ballads: some knew 20%; some 70%. But the 14 sections that we now have seems to be the whole of The Song of the Way, and the job now is to study this and to make sure it is passed on.” To that end, Vellian has been building on another, almost lost Keralan tradition: the dancing nuns of Malabar. Fr Vellian has spent the last few years training up some of the many hundreds of nuns of Kerala to dance the ancient dances of St Thomas, and groups of wimpled sisters can now be seen swaying uncertainly to the beat of the tabla as they attempt to master the dances which tell of the apostle’s travels. In this way, what may be the last surviving link with the tradition of the apostles is now being preserved by a group of south Indian Whoopi Goldbergs.
Fr Vellian is adamant that the oral traditions have accurately preserved a series of texts that may well hold vital clues which could help prove the St Thomas legend: “The palm-leaf documents that we have collected show how accurately the bards have preserved the text,” he says. “Here or there a word may have changed, in the 300 years since the earliest was written down, but by and large the versions we have collected in the fields are consistent both with each other and these palm leaf-texts. These traditions are an authentic and incredibly valuable and ancient source of Christian history, and should be respected as such.”
Vellian is right. For while Christianity has never been a major faith in India, it is a religion with deep roots, which has clung on with incredible tenacity, despite all the odds. Above all, the church here has remained faithful to the tradition of St Thomas’s journey from Palestine to India. It is a story long forgotten in a west which has come to regard itself as the true home of the faith, forgetting that in essence, Christianity is an eastern religion.
Before leaving Kerala, I asked Dr Vellian whether he really believed his work would eventually provide some conclusive evidence to prove St Thomas’s journey. “In the end, we are the evidence,” he said. “We have a very ancient, unbroken tradition that St. Thomas was the founder of the church in India. Our traditions are unanimous that he came here, and that is something we have held on to, despite persecution, for 1,700 years. Our spirituality is very close to that of the early church and we believe our church is as old as any Apostolic Church in the world. Our songs and traditions are quite clear about this. In the end it is these traditions that we base our belief on: not something on paper or stone which is secondary. It is our fidelity to St Thomas that is most important to us.”
William Dalrymple’s film, Doubting Thomas, the third in his series Indian Journeys, will be shown on BBC2 on Monday at 7.10 pm. – The Guardian, 15 April 2000