The Indian Orthodox Church

The Malankara Orthodox Church: A historical perspective



The Indian Church had a character different from that of any other Church of ancient times. Christanity has been in existence in India from the beginning of the christian era. Christanity came to India much before it went to Rome or Western Europe. The syrian christians of Kerala constitute the most ancient Christian community of India. Their form of christanity is apostolic and derived directly from Apostle St. Thomas.

The name, Malankara Orthodox Church, refers to the section of the St. Thomas Christians of India, that Canonically came under Catholicate of the East whose Supreme Head is His Holiness The Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan, with head quarters at Devalokam, Kottayam, Kerala, India. St. Thomas Christians at present belong to ten different churches and denominations. The Malankara Orthodox Church is one among them and it is the second largest.

St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, is the founder of the ancient church in India. Christian writers and historians from the 4th century refer to the evangelistic work of Apostle Thomas in India, and the Indian Christians ascribe the origin of their church to the labours of the apostle in the 1st century.

“Insistent tradition ascribes the introduction of Christianity to India to the Apostle Thomas, one of the original Twelve.” History of Christianity. Vol.1. By Kenneth Scott Latourette. Page 80.

It is reasonable to believe that the St. Thomas came to India, preached the gospel, established the church and died there as a martyr. It is believed that St. Thomas arrived in Cranganore, Kerala, India in 52 A.D. He preached the gospel and established churches at seven places; Crangannore, Palur, Paraur, Gokkamangalam, Niranam, Chayal and Quilon, and appointed prelates and priests. He is believed to have been martyred at Mylapur, Madras, India, around 72 A.D. Malankara Orthodox Church in India is as old as any ancient Christian communities elsewhere in the world.

South India had trade connections with the Mediterranean and West Asian world since ancient times. This enabled the Church in those areas, particularly Persia, to have a knowledge of the existence of a Christian community in India. Many Christians, when they were persecuted in Persian Empire, fled to the South western coast of India and found there a ready and warm welcome.

Like the other churches, the Indian Church maintained its autonomous character under its local leader. When the Portuguese established themselves in India in the 16th Century, they found the Church in Kerala, as an administratively independent community. Following the arrival of Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese General, in Calicut, Kerala, India, in 1498, they came to South India and established their political power there. The Portuguese brought with them missionaries to carry on evangelistic work in order to establish churches in communion with Rome under the Portuguese patronage. These missionaries were eager to bring the Indian Church also under the Pope. They succeeded in their efforts in 1599 with the “Synod of Diamper”. The representatives of various parishes who attended the assembly were forced by Portughese Authorities to accept the Papal authority.

Following the synod, the Indian Church came to be governed by Portuguese prelates. They were as a whole, unwilling to respect the integrity of the Indian Church, and a majority of people were not happy about the state of affairs. This disaffection led to general revolt in 1653 which is known as “The Coonen Cross Pledge”. They demanded administrative autonomy for the Indian Church. This body, since it had no bishop to guide spiritually, had to face serious difficulties. Yet it was determined to keep the independence of Indian Church.


The Persian connection of the Indian churches has to bee seen in the context of the internal dissensions and state persecution of Christians in Persia from the 5th century. A Synod of the Persian Church (410 AD) affirmed the faith of Nicea and acknowledged the Metropolitan of Selucia-Ctesiphon as the Catholicos of East. Not long after, the christological controversies of Chaldeon, fuelled by the strains between the Persian and Byzantine empires, swayed the Persian church to declare itself “Nestroian” and its head to assume the title of Patariarch of the East (Babylon). From their base in the then flourishing theological school of Nisibis, Nestorian missionaries began moving to India, Central Asia, China and Ethiopia to teach their doctrines-probably associating the churches in these countries with the work of St. Thomas the Apostle, whom the Persians must have venerated as the founder of their own church.

By the 7th Century, specific references of the Indian church began to appear in Persian records. The Metropolitan of India and the Metropolitan of China are mentioned in the consecration records of Patriarches of the East. At one stage, however, the Indian church was claimed to be in the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Fars but this issue was settled by Patriarch Sliba Zoha (714- 728 AD) who recognized the traditional dignity of the autonomous Metropolitan of India.

There were other developments in the Persian Church of potential import to the Indian Church. A renaissance of the pre-Chalcedon faith began led by Jacob Baradeus, emphasizing the West Syrian Christological tradition of the one united nature, influencing the church in Persia as well. Availing the relatively favorable political climate following the Arab conquest of Syria and other parts of West Asia, a maphrianate of the anti-Chalcedonians was established and Mar Marutha, a native Persian, became the first Jacobite Maphriana (Catholicos) of the East. The jurisdiction of this Catholicos at Tigris extended to 18 episcopal diocesses in lower Mosopotamia and further east, but significantly, not to India.

On the growth of the church in India during the first 15 centuries, the balance of historical evidence and the thrust of local tradition point to its basic autonomy sustained by the core of its own faith and culture. It received with the trust and courtesy missionaries, bishops and migrants as they came from whichever eastern Church- Tigris or Babylon, Antioch or Alexandria, but not from the more distant Constantinopole or Rome. There were times in this long period when the Christians in India had been without a bishop and were led by an Arcdeacon. In such occasions requests were sent, sometimes with success, to one another of the Eastern prelates to help restore the episcopate in India. Meanwhile the church in Persia and much of west declined by internal causes and the impact of Islam, affecting both the “Nestorian” Patriarchate of the East (Babylon) and the Jacobite Catholicate of the East (Tigris). As will be seen from the later history of the Indian Church, the latter, was reestablished in India (Kottayam) in 1912 while the former was transplanted to America 1940.


The post-Portuguese story of the church in India from the 16th century- is relatively well documented. In their combined zeal to colonize and proselytize, the Portuguese might not have readily grasped the way of life of the Thomas Christians who seemed to accommodate differing strands of eastern Christian thought and influence, while preserving the core of their original faith. The response of the visitors was to try and bring them under Rome-Syrian prelates, apart from the new converts in the coastal areas under Latin prelates.

Pushed beyond a limit, the main body of Thomas Christians rose in revolt and took a collective oath at the Coonen Cross in Mattancherry in 1653, resolving to preserve the faith and autonomy of their church and to elect its head. Accordingly, Archdeacon Thomas was raised to the title of Mar Thoma, the first in the long line up to Mar Thoma IX-till 1816.

At the request of the Thomas Christians, the “Jacobite” bishop, Mar Gregorios of Jerusalem came to India in 1664, confirmed the episcopal consecration of Mar Thoma I as the head of the Orthodox Church in India. Thus began the formal relationship with the “Jacobite” Syrian Church, as it happened, in explicit support of the traditional autonomy of the Indian Church.

History repeated itself in another form when the British in India encouraged reformation within the Orthodox Church, partly through Anglican domination of the theological seminary in Kottayam, besides attracting members of the church into Anglican congregations since 1836. Finally the reformist group broke away to form the Mar Thoma Church. This crisis situation was contained with the help of Patriarch Peter III of Antioch who visited India in 1875-77. The outcome was twofold; a reaffirmation of the distinctive identity of the Orthodox Church under its own Metropolitan and, at some dissonance with this renewal, an enlarged influence of the Patriarch of Antioch in the affairs of the Indian Church.

Thus the relation ship which started for safeguarding the integrity and independence of the Orthodox Church, in India, against the misguided, if understandable, ambitions of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Protestant Churches, opened a long and tortuous chapter in which concord and conflict between the Indian and Syrian Orthodox Churches have continued to alternate, to this day.

Three landmarks of recent history, however, lend hope that peace and unity might yet return to the Orthodox Community, driven rather unnaturally by divided loyalty. First, the relocation in India in 1912 of the Catholicate of the East originally in Selecuia and later in Tigris and the consecration of the first Indian Catholicos-Moran Mar Baselios Paulos- in Apostolic succession to St. Thomas, with the personal participation of Patriarch Abdul Messiah of Antiaoch. Second, the coming into force in 1934 of the Constitution of the Orthodox Church in India as an autocephalous Church linked to the Orthodox Syrian Church of the Patriarch of Antioch, and third the accord of 1958, by which Patriarch Ignatius Yakkoub III affirmed his acceptance of the Catholicos as well as the Constitution. More recently the verdict from the honorable Supreme court of India and the Malankara Assciation meeting held at Parumala on March, 2002 are historical events in the quest for lasting peace in the Orthodox Church of India.

The fact that the Christian Church, first appeared in India, as elsewhere, as a fellowship of self-governing communities to the same body and born in the same new life, may yet light the path to a future of peace, within and beyond the Orthodox Community.

Reproduced with edits from: HG Late Dr. Paulose Mar Gregorios, The Malankara Orthodox Church: A historical perspective, Malankara Sabha, May 1996.