St. Thomas Christians Part 1: The Malabar Church

The Christians of Kerala are one of the few groups that can undeniably trace their roots to an apostolic origin (Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria can do so as well while the Ethiopians hold a revered tradition that St. Matthew reached them and Constantinople attempted centuries later to perpetuate a myth of St. Andrew founding their church).  The arrival of St. Thomas in southern India in 52 AD marks the furthest eastward any of the apostles ever reached.  It was there, at the southern tip of the vast subcontinent, that Thomas planted the seeds of Christianity that would be the most isolated and forgotten for a century and a half.

Aside from a migration of Syriac Christians to Kerala in the 4th century (who became the so-called Knanaya Catholics), these Malabar Christians would have little contact with the rest of Christianity until the 16th century.  The one exception was the vast Church of the East, whose Catholikos (Patriarch) they placed themselves under.  However, due to their distance, they avoided the influx of Nestorian ideas the mother church endured after the Council of Ephesus (the Malankara schism and their submitting to the Syrian Jacobites is a demonstration of this fact).  They still adopted the liturgical praxis of the East Syriac mother church (though, supposedly, with local Indian variations).  Arguably, this was the most untouched group of Christians from the days of the apostles.

When Portuguese missionaries arrived in Kerala in the 16th century, they were shocked to find Christians in a land filled with some of the most bizarre and ancient pagan customs.  They were welcomed with open arms by the Malabarese as long lost brothers.  The Malabar were oblivious to the highly advanced scholastic theology of the Western Christians and ignorant of the complex Christological controversies that had engulfed Christians from Spain to Persia.  They simply did as they had done for centuries even under the yoke of Hindu, Mongol, and Muslim rule.

When the greatly diminished Church of the East found itself in the middle of a schism between two rival bishops claiming their right as Catholikos – an uncle and a nephew – with both sides bobbing in and and out of communion with Rome, the Indian Christians looked to Rome as a better guarantor of stability.  Like the Maronites before them, they left the jurisdiction of their own patriarchate for support with the comparatively safe and stable Western church.  When the last Metropolitan Bishop appointed by the Chaldean Patriarch (the leader of one of the two factions in the divided Church of the East) died in 1597 AD, a Jesuit was chosen to succeed him.

The Archbishop of Goa took advantage of this opportunity.  The Synod of Diamper was conducted in 1599 with the intention of burning or revising the books which the Latin Archbishop – in his myopia and ignorance – deemed heretical (some of them were actually problematic while others merely contradicted scholastic thinking).  Countless Syriac works were lost as the Malabar Christians were torn from the womb of their mother Church and subjected to what was essentially European colonialism.  The Anophora of Addai and Mari was deemed the only one to be acceptable and – even then – was slashed, hacked, and modified to fit Western sensibilities.  It was never put into use due to the lack of ability to reproduce enough copies.  The liturgy itself remained untouched due to this and the Latinizations were more external in nature (such as vestments).

In 1653, the church rebelled against the Jesuits due to the Ahatallah Controversy and the Coonan Cross Oath.  While Rome would send the Carmelites to calm the situation, some of the Indian Christians did not return and joined the Miaphysite Syrians.  These Christians would become the Malankara of whom we will talk later.

Over the course of the next few centuries, the latinizations sunk into and became part of the Malabar praxis.  There was a small rupture in 1874 when a group of them returned to the Assyrian Church, but they remained under the Roman Church (during my first visit to a Syro-Malabar Church the congregants introduced themselves as “Syro-Malabar Roman Catholics”).

This changed when the holy Pius XI, during infighting among the Malankara Christians, made a preliminary effort to win them over by separating the Malabar from Roman hierarchy and granted them independent status with their own “Major Archbishop” (effectively a Patriarch in all but name).  Today they enjoy the status of an entirely independent sui juris church and have expanded past their native Kerala (they have three churches in the Dallas area, one of which is a Knanaya community).

Liturgically, they are in an odd situation.  There was genuine interest in the 1950’s in reviving the ancient Malabar customs as much as possible (including bring back the anaphoras of Theodore and Nestorius), but the effort met some resistance.  Since then there have been about half a dozen versions of the Qurbana promulgated, each with its own idiosyncrasies.  The factors in this tug of war appear to be: those attempting to restore older practices, those attempting to copy Rome including her later revisions, those wanting to Indianize the liturgy as much as possible, and those seeking some sort of compromise.  In my opinion the 1962 revision appears – at least on the surface – to be the most genuine attempt to restore tradition in the liturgy (bringing back the Chaldean vestments is a definite plus).

I find this amusing as the Rad Trad and I have repeatedly discussed the inferiority of the 1962 Missale Romanum in comparison to what the Roman Rite was before Pius XII. It appears that in 1962 there was an actual attempt to bring back tradition going on as the Roman Rite was being gutted and hacked.

For more details, see this article.

If any Syro-Malabar Christians are reading this, I would be interested in a more detailed explanation of the liturgical trends.

If one goes to a Malabar Church, expect to see much Western art.  I do not consider this necessarily a bad thing in and of itself and the Malabar Catholics I have talked to seem split on the issue.  For music, they use a choir and a synthesizer to simulate traditional Indian instruments.  The vestments are assured to be of the Chaldean type and the Communion is unleavened wafers.  A giant curtain covers the Holy Place and is drawn after about 10-15 minutes into the liturgy (after some versus populum prayers between priest and congregation).  The priest ascends into the altar, takes the bread and wine from a side table to the left of the people (it was explained to me that this is symbolic of the Son sitting at the right hand of the Father), and proceeds with the anaphora (usually Addai and Mari), prayers are said, Communion is distributed via intinction, postcommunion prayers are said, the curtain is closed, the priest says a few dismissal prayers versus populum, and the Qurbana ends.

While the Church appears to be in a bit of a flux, I do recommend a visit if one ever gets the opportunity.  It pleasantly surprised me the first time I visited, back when I knew little of the history and nothing of the liturgy.


3 thoughts on “St. Thomas Christians Part 1: The Malabar Church

    • Yes, both the Malabar and Malankara do (as do the Maronies, Chaldeans, and some of the Anglican Ordinariates). The difference appears to be that the Malabar (as far as I am aware) use unleavened hosts while the Malankara will either use whatever they have (which, in the case of the Dallas church, is unleavened hosts) or will use leavened loaves.


      • Awesome. As a Catholic who is part of a FSSP community, I am very happy with and spiritually nourished with the TLM however I want to explore the Eastern liturgies just so that I can see a little bit more liturgical diversity. Breathing with both lungs as I’ve been told.


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