18 April 2018

On unknowns, half-truths and controversies



Bar Eto Briro Dr. Daniel Babu Paul IAS is one of Kerala’s eminent and awarded bureaucrats. He is one the most prominent member of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church (Jacobite faction).

Scholar. Speaker. Straight.

Retirement doesn’t let Dr. Babu Paul rest, invitations for speeches keeps him active. He loves a good intellectual discussion and piquing on his vault of knowledge.

Google the odd title prefixing his name and the results say that he is the only one to receive the highest honorific-title from the Syrian Orthodox church for a non-clergy.





I wanted to discuss with you on your views on St. Thomas Christians’ history. I have read a lot but trying to link the dots.

You see, first what we should understand about our history is that there is no impartial unprejudiced version. By reading one of the so called “authentic” history books, anybody can easily identify the author's affiliations. Fr. Xavier Koodapuzha writings are good but while reading it one can easily deduce that it is on the side of the Syro-Malabar Catholic church.



Maybe somebody like MGS Narayanan should write an unprejudiced one. Or, if I had time, I would have written without being extra loyal to the faction that I belong. Actually, I do plan to in future - I would like to say such and such are the views and these are the counter-views. But the society keeps me busy, today itself I must make at least two speeches which is to be delivered in the next days. So, I hardly get time. If I had I would even like to write a book explaining my theological positions on various matter that may not agree with the official theological positions of neither the Catholic church nor the Orthodox church. I am currently on one of my theory that St Paul may have hijacked the simple Gospel of Love and imposed Greek philosophy into that ... long story and another thread of discussion, will not go into that.



In short, I was trying to say an impartial investigation even if made till now has not been recorded. So, you will have to check who writes what and who says what.



Off late I have been meeting some scholars and having conversations with them. Mar Aprem Thirumeni, of the Chaldean Syrian church, told me that you have some viewpoints on the early Nasranis’ affiliations. Can you say something about this?

We all agree that St. Thomas came here, but there is nothing available to prove it. But there is enough evidence to accept that he could have come. Like for example, the King mentioned in the Acts of Thomas was not known to the world till there was numismatic evidences. So, it corroborative.

St. Thomas' second trip here was said to be via Socotra. As per our legends, he came here in AD 52 and the trade-winds were discovered in AD 45 – so the dating could be right. Till the discovery of the trade-winds there were only land-routes and coastal-shipping.

Another reason we say our traditions should be true is because many prayers and church fathers acknowledge St. Thomas' connection with India. But as an intellectual we must question whether that reference of India is the current India. In the Book of Maccabees, if I remember rightly, there is a mention of elephants used in war - could this be from India or the North-west frontier areas like Kandahar.

Anyway, what I am trying to say is that what we know is very little with regards to early Kerala Christian history.



And in my view this statement that a Thomas of Cana was sent by the Bishop of Antioch in AD 345 is unacceptable. If say this loudly people will cry that I have left the church [scoffs] This affiliation is not plausible, as the office of the Patriarch of Antioch itself came in existence only from the Council of Nicaea. Dr. Alexander Jacob, former Director General of Police here and also a good scholar, has an interesting theory - he says this Knanaya (arrival)year is not AD 345 but 345 Hijra, in which case the AD year easily moves into the 10th century. Again, you see things are not so clear, history is hazy.



Kerala or even India as such don’t have too much historical records. We always say much of the Nasrani history were burnt at Udayamperoor. This may be true but I say we were not in the habit of recording history except when in the case of Kings, rulers and their activities. Like we know about Buddhism mostly because of Emperor Asoka. Therefore, because we don’t have such good records, we are working backwards in an investigative mode.



There were records of visitations to this Malayali coast quite early in Christian history like Pantaenus from Egypt way back in the 2nd century! There was a Catholic connection even, probably with the ships that berthed briefly at Quilon on their way to China - this in 11-12th century. There are writings of what these visitors saw here. The Catholics say one bishop John of Monte Corvino was appointed, though we don’t know if he ever came to Quilon. The Catholic diocese of Quilon claims that it is the first Catholic diocese east of Gibraltar! [smiles]



Travelers like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta also stopped in India – one of them mentioned that the Christians here are rich people and exclusive monopoly on pepper trade. And also, that these Christians consider St. Thomas bigger than Christ - this statement in fact gives strength of the St. Thomas Tradition. There is also a statement by somebody else in history, I think one Joseph the Indian who said that the Christians here are not aware of the Pope -  I believe he was given a free trip to Rome because of this. [smiles]



What Mar Aprem says about the Chaldean/Nestorian connection has an element of truth, but I have two arguments: One he claims that right from the very beginning we were with the Chaldean or Nestorian church - and this is yet to be established. But it is true that when the Portuguese landed here we were largely Nestorian, probably for 300 to 400 years before Gama set foot here.

My second of difference with Mar Aprem is he says his church is the continuation of the early Nasrani traditions. There was no continuation with any of the Sabha (means church-group) strictly speaking. What they are is a carve-out from the Romo-Syrian faction which was those who went back on their oath at the Coonen Kurishu (means ‘Bent Cross’) Cross event.



The Coonen Kurishu revolt - Do you have anything more on this episode?

Portuguese came in and they tried to impose their versions of Christianity on us. They succeeded due to political power but our people reacted. The culminating event was this revolt.



I think it may have been mostly an impulsive revolt by the Ernakulam side Nasranis. Because of the communication difficulties and modes of transportation available then, it would have been very difficult to summon a Southerner Christian from say Thumpamon or Chengannur and to get them to react so quickly. This revolt was an immediate reaction to a rumor – and that fervor is what the Jacobites faction are still showing [snickers]



I have read that the missing bishop, of that event, Mar Ahattalah's origins are also obscure.

Yes, that is also controversial. The Orthodoxies, both sides, claim that the Bishop who went missing (allegedly drowned by the Portuguese) and leading to the revolt, was from Antioch.  But there is no evidence for that.



After the event, the Nasranis shot-off letters to different Oriental and Eastern Patriarchates.



Let me interrupt please: How did the Nasranis who were supposedly isolated most part of history know of such bishoprics in Jerusalem and Alexandria?

Well we have had this Persian/Chaldean connection was there for over 400 years. The Eastern church circle had the connections among them. The bishops may have been aware of those details. Moreover, our mercantile contacts to Malankara helped more. Note that Pantaenus visited us in the 2nd century – so we are not all that isolated.



So the first official Jacobite connection was with Mor Gregorios in AD 1665. As intellectuals, we cannot claim before that the church here was under Antioch before that. The Antioch system was brought in here and it reached the present dimensions of Antiochian influence only by late 18th or early 19th centuries. The Niranam Grandhveris and Kandanad Grandhveris, these books indicate how the foreign bishops taught and corrected the ritual practices in our churches.



How did the Syro Malabar Catholics end up becoming a larger group?

After the Coonen Kurishu event the Archdeacon was given four advisors. The Portuguese and the Catholic faction had won over 2 of these advisors. And they were both from the same geographical region - between Ettumanur & Vaikom. Even now we see no other Syrian faction even today in the triangular region of Ettaumanur - Vaikom - Pala except Syrian Catholics.

These two major leaders' families crossed over to the Catholic side. And one of them was even made bishop - his name they changed to Alexander de Campo, which is Parambil Chandy in Malayalam.

The Archdeacon and the remaining two advisors remained with the Antiochian faction. So, we can argue that the tradition that was established at the Coonen Kurishu event is with the Orthodoxies even now.



I read about your Kuruppampady church in one of your blog and some interesting happening there during the major split time.

Kuruppampady was an old parish, probably geography-wise it should have been a spin-off from the Edappally church though it is said to be originating from the Kanjoor church. And it stood firmly with the Archdeacon.

There were a small group with a rich Tharakan (name of a Syrian Christian, originally a title) who wanted the church to be on the Catholic side. Strong dispute enraged. There were 3 altars in the church - the Jacobite loyalist held steadfast onto 2 of those altars and the Catholics held onto the 3rd as their place of worship absolute pandemonium! When a ritual starts, one groups used to try drowning the sounds of the other party – much like what we saw with the Orthodox-Jacobite disputes in recent times at the Kolencherry church. [smiles] So back at Kuruppampady almost all Sundays were fight days. Finally, the Tahsildar of the area interfered and mediated to settle the dispute - the agreement was whichever party deposits 3000 gold coins first can take over the church. The Catholic Tharakan was in fact very rich and could have put it up front, but he decided to play the waiting cat & mouse game which proved costly for his side. The Jacobite side saw this as a life or death scenario and raised this amount really fast (faster than what the Tharakan thought possible) remitted and took over the church.

The Catholic group had to leave and they built a new church in the name of St Peter & St Paul. But the elders of that time, and even nowadays, they used to stop at the old church to pay respects to Mother (Virgin Mary). At All Souls day, they used come to pray at our cemetery for their forefathers.



I was wondering: Wasn’t this change to Antiochian traditions a really big change for the community?

Yes, it was. That is way even though Mor Gregorios introduced West-Syriac rituals and script in AD 1665, it is only with the arrival of Mor Baselios Shakralla in AD 1751 and Mor Ivanios Hidayatullah did these changes become mainstream.



I can tell of even bigger changes effected: When the Archbishop Menezes, with the Portuguese, forced our then priests to divorce and put their children in orphanages! And with the Antiochian introduction, the then priest were asked to marry! Because as per the new tradition, only a married priest can hear the confessions of women. Though marriage was traditionally allowed before priesthood, because of the emergency many priests were asked get married.

Is that so strict a rule that is followed? Of celibate priest not allowed to hear confessions.

Was unheard of in the Antiochian tradition, but although now it is allowed here also.

There is interesting story in this regard: Vattasseril thirumeni (Geevarghese Mar Dionysius) came to know that Mar Ivanios heard the confession of one woman. This is while Mar Ivanios (later founder of the Malankara Syrian Catholic Church) was still with the Orthodox church. Vattaseril Thirumeni challenged him and asked why he went against the tradition. Ivanios argued that it was not an issue as he is beyond all these temptations. Vattasseril thirumeni, a very senior and saintly person, replied "Even at this age I don’t have any control over my temptation, what makes you think you are beyond all of this?" [laughs]



... Anyways back to one of your previous question on how the Catholics gained in numbers. So, in the days after the Coonen Kurishu event there were a count of some 88 churches - 22 of them were with the Catholics and 66 with Jacobites. But with the defection of the two prominent persons and with economic & political pressures from the Latin groups the Catholic faction become stronger.

BTW even among the Catholics, did you know there is one small group that stayed with the Latin missionaries - some 300 families or so. They were led by a priest called Palluruthy Yakob Kathanar. They act like the ‘Brahmins’ of the Latin rite [chuckles] - they don’t intermarry with the other Latin Catholics! They are in the Varapuzha & Kottapuram diocese. The names are like Pyli, Itty, Ittiavirah, Kariakutty ... they are Syrians in disguise.

Oh, that’s new to me.

They have their own church in Alapuzha even though there are numerous Latin churches there. Typical Syrian Christian behavior, right? [smiles] Similar thing with the ‘Christ church’ - though it’s part of the Church of South India (CSI) - they won’t allow local CSI bishop to enter that church! It is with one Thomas Oommen of Kottayam.

When it comes to exclusivity, wealth protection and caste purity - then all of Christ's teaching can be set aside [smiles]



Even this upper-caste claim of Syrian Christians I have a theory, just my guess: there were no Nambudiri's here in the first century, it was mostly Buddhist and Jains. But by the time Portuguese came in Nambudiris and Nairs had established at the highest levels of society. So, when our forefathers felt taunted by the Portuguese, they may have admonished the foreigners saying that we are not like the heathens they encountered at their colonies and like those baptized at the beaches of the world, and that us Nasranis are the upper-caste like the Nambudiris. That is probably where this reference started...just my theory.



The Catholics so became powerful because of their superior organizational structure and they remained firm despite the internal problems.



While Portuguese tried to suppress us, the Britishers later tried to infiltrate us and act like a cancer. The Mavelikara padiyola (means agreement) as a response to this. A small group of Syrians stayed with the Britishers - they are the CSI central Kerala diocese.



After that the Marthoma Sabha was formed. One Vidhwankutty, a Tamil Brahmin convert, evangelized his own version of Christianity here. Roughly the same time this reformation movement happened in the Orthodox church, loosely inspired by Vidhwankutty. The remnants of this evangelist's followers joined the Marthoma church after his demise. They had outright protestant views. One Kovoor Iype Thoma Kathanar brought all these protestant factions together into the Marthoma church.



Formally the first Patriarch to came to Malankara was only in 1876 as the Sabha took a stand that for a bishop to become and feel like a proper bishop needs to have ordained by a Patriarch himself.

What has become of the Orthodox-Jacobite feud?

The Supreme court finally said that the Patriarch has a spiritual position above the Catholicos but he has no temporal power.

Do you know if the early St Thomas Christians were like the Gnostic or say Manichean?

I do not have too much information on that. Only we could understand that socially and culturally the Christians here were not distinct from the Hindu community. That distinctions were impressed after the Portuguese came.



What is your view on the Orthodox-Jacobite feud?

Totally unnecessary hatred and arrogance. In 1995 supreme court said the Patriarch has a place in Malankara but with no temporal power. They use the word 'vanishing point' … that is he is like the setting sun as seen from Shanghumugham beach. At the same time the Patriarch is allowed to have Simhasana churches. The then Bava thirumeni (Catholicos Baselios Paulose II) had issued a bull agreeing to that verdict, but preceding his death in 1996 it was suppressed by the succeeding Bava (Catholicos Baselios Thomas I).  And so the flame of argument is kept alive.

If you ask me nowadays it looks like this feud is like drama played out by both the factions – though even the Patriarch wants to settle this.



Is the West-Syriac spoken still?

Only as a liturgical language. The only people left speaking this is in some village called Maaloula, near Damascus, and they are now all Muslims.



Do you know of any families with actual Syrian or rather foreign origins?

One Tholanikunnel family, the details you could see in their website. The originator came from Edessa where many there have this name Adai. Many of their descendants also are named Adai. In fact, I myself should had been named Adai because my great-grandfather married the daughter of one of the Tholanikunnel Adai Kathanar. My grandfather was so named Addai.



Another such line is through one who came along with one of our bishops Euyakim Mar Coorilos, that person stayed back and who married into the Chalakuzhy family. The Marthoma sabha has one bishop from that line who is also with the same name. I had suggest to the Alexander Marthoma Thirumeni to use the same name for the bishop and that it’s an opportunity for Marthoma Sabha to show the connection to the apostolic delegate of 19th century.



The Muthalaly families of Chathanur & Kundara are supposedly foreigners but they may have surely been mixed by now.



Any history on your own Cheerathottam family? Is it part of any other known family names?

No. It was called Cheerakathottam, my father happened to use the Cheerathottam form. As per our passed-on history, this family became Christian only in the last quarter of the 18th century - so relatively new. It is said this was a Nambudiri convert from the Cheerakattu Mana in Karingachira - one Cheerakattu Narayanan Nambudiri. Then to survive they moved eastwards to Perumbavoor. The Mana's remnants now exist somewhere near Changanassery.

My brother & I and at least a couple of people in a generation of our family are born vegetarian [smiles]

13 March 2018

On the Golden Oldies



Chevalier Prof. George Menachery is a respected figure among many different groups: historians, archaeologist among others. He is best known for his many tomes on the St. Thomas Christians.

A warm host and spends his time between conferences and talks. He is also with my opinion that more of the new-generation Malayali diaspora should be aware of their history and take pride in our heritage.

The title prefixing his name was conferred on him by Pope Benedict XVI as the ‘Membership of the Equistrian Order of St. Gregory the Great’




How did you start writing on this subject of Nasranis or Saint Thomas Christians? Were there any resources available at your time?

There were very few books on the subject. At Thrissur Public Library, there was an archaeology museum I used to visit there. BTW I am interested in Hinduism and related archaeology. I used to buy books from one of the shops there…then a bunch of them would cost just a few Annas (Old Indian money) [smiles]. Among these publications, I would rarely stumble on any St Thomas Christian writeups. Once I read an article on an Elephant Lamp in an old (Kanjoor) church. This interested me to dig further into old churches and the art within. That is when I realized what I had ignored before. I now say that the oldest rock sculptures should be from the ancient churches in Kerala!



Also, I was on one Catholic conference in New Delhi a long-long time ago. All throughout the conference there wasn’t a proper representation of the Syrian Catholicism prevalent in Kerala. When I got a chance to highlight this in one session I found that many of them (bishops) were clearly ignorant of any such history or this branch of Catholicism! I thought if this is the state of awareness in learned leaders of the Indian churches then what would be the level of awareness in the common people – this prompted me to then write first on the subject.

When did the Syro-Malabar Catholic Sabha (Church Group) formalize?

In 1887, Trichur (Thrissur) and Kottayam Vicariate Apostolates were formed. They were not dioceses, as only the Latins were given that privilege. There was a congregation called “Propaganda”, they had a technique that made us call their bishops 'Vicar Apostolic'.

You mentioned something about the oldest rock sculptures. Wasn’t many of our churches rebuilt many times in the past?

These old churches may have been relocated, rebuilt or renovated. But many of the structures in them they reused and maintained – take for example the baptismal fonts, altar pieces among others. These were reused.

Most ancient churches had three tier roofing – the highest for the Madbaha (altar area), second-highest for the Hykalla (Nave) and lowest for the Mukhamadapam (entry).

All old Syrian Christian churches had altar towards the east, Jesus is considered the rising sun - inspired by Egyptians’ Sun God Horus. You see all beliefs are built on something previous [smiles]

And every Egyptian temple had an obelisk in front of it, symbolizing the ray of the sun. Our open-air rock cross in front of the church are almost like this obelisk – inspired by it.

Are you saying there weren’t such crosses elsewhere in the Christian world?
No. Well there are now - the Portuguese has tried this out in Latin America - Brazil and around.

The biggest ones among ours are in Kuravilangadu (St. Mary’s Forane) and Kaduthuruty (St. Mary’s Valiya Palli) churches

An interesting aspect of our rock crosses: every cross here seems to sprout out from a lotus flower. With an historian background, from my observations, this lotus art seems to appear first in churches in Kerala! Also, you must have seen peacocks in our churches, as in Cheriapally (in Kottayam). Lotus, the nation flower and Peacock, the national bird ... seems to show up first here from churches and not from temples!

The Nasranis were mostly concentrated between the Bharatha and Pamba rivers (Quilon). Where is your native place?

My parents are from near Chengannur.
Chengannur has an ancient church and a beautiful open-air cross. It had with Adam and Eve carved into it.

Well there is a Hanuman on it too :)
Yes [smiles] and so are many more characters and animals.
There are six rock lamp-stands at that church.

Have you been to Kallooppara (St. Mary's Orthodox church near Thiruvalla)?
Of course, one of my favorites [bright smile] Beautiful and well preserved.

I don’t normally photograph the facades of these churches as all these facades (on our ancient churches) are Portuguese additions. This was done to erase the temple look.

Remove the facade and the Kallooppara church was almost a temple. Both these communities, Hindus & Christians, lived and prayed side by side. And their constructions inspired each other.

I’ve heard of this similarity between temples and churches of the past. One of my very-old relatives told me that the Niranam church was rebuilt a few times since he was born and before that it was like a kshetrom (Hindu temple). Even in history, I’ve read of somebody who went into a temple mistaking it for a Nasrani church.
Yes. It was Vasco da Gama in AD 1498, when he landed at Kappad. One his way to the Zamorin's palace he stopped to pray at a place where he saw people joining their hands.  He had thought many Indians were Christians – after all they were in search of the legendary Prester John.

He may have not noticed initially but after his thanksgiving-prayers to the Virgin he noticed some peculiarities of the Virgin Mary [chuckles] - Her teeth were protruding out some two inches and the tongue hung down abnormally and were stained red. Kali! 
When he realized, this was not the place he wanted to be – he said a prayer to withdraw it [chuckles]

Anyways the important thing, for us, with these historical records is to pick on the other things they mention – say like the observations of the Portuguese of the temple and/or church interiors. 
They mention of a fat pillar - Bali kallu (Sacrificial Altar); there is this in all our churches too, as the base of the rock cross! And the cross represents Sacrifice.
They mention of a tall pillar with Kite on top (Garuda) – flagstaff; again, there in our churches.
They mention of murals on the walls in temple - Images though came into our church only after Portuguese.

So, when did murals be introduced in Nasrani country?
Murals probably came into our church only in 14th century. One Bishop Marignolli from Florence introduced this art. Florence as you know is the land of the brilliants like Da Vinci, Michelangelo & Raphael. The bishop arrived through probably Kollam and says he stayed in one of the church ... most probably in Cheppad (St. George Orthodox Church). The murals in Kayamkulam, Cheriapally, Kanjoor, Akaparambu, Paliakara etc. maybe were later inspired.

BTW What were we called at those times? Nasranis?
Arabs used to call us Nasrenes. Other traders may have used the same when interacting with us. Elsewhere in the Christendom, we were mostly referred to as ‘Thomas Christians’.

What are the meaning of the stuccoes on the outside of some of our churches?
As per me, art depicts the life of the times.

At one of churches in Akaparambu (Mor Sabor and Afroth Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Cathedral) there is one plaster image of a nude woman hung upside down. I could see it as depiction of punishments like one of the art inspired by Dante's works.

Just a little away from Akaparambu there is another ancient church at Angamali (St. Mary's Soonoro Cathedral), where also hell is depicted. Angamali (church) has one of the such largest mural art.

How do react to some of the far Right-wing allegations on Christianity in India? They are out to prove that there were never any Christians in India before the Portuguese.
Absolute idiots I say!

There are also some historians to support them too, who are in denial because they cannot accept the evidences or chose not to accept. Why, even Marco Polo has written about the Thomas Christians back in AD 1293!
Want to go back further? 4th century - Mar Aprem (St. Ephrem), one of the early bishops of Christianity mentions of India, the translation bones of St. Thomas from India to Edessa. See how many times he mentions India in a praise to St. Thomas:

‘Blessed art thou, O Light, like the lamp, the sun amidst darkness
hath placed; the earth darkened with sacrifices’ fumes to illuminate.
‘A land of people dark fell to thy lot that these in white robes
thou shouldest clothe and cleanse by baptism: a tainted land Thomas has purified.

the solar ray from the great orb; thy
grateful dawn India’s painful darkness doth dispel.
‘Thou the great lamp, one among the Twelve, with oil from the
Cross replenished, India’s dark night floodest with light.


This Right-wing trolling army are abusive and their only job is to negate every other opinion. No point in discussion with them.

But how do we know that the India St. Ephrem speak of is the same India now? It could be mistaken for Persia or some place in Central Asia or islands near Africa?
There is nothing so unclear of where India was, at least for the last 1500 years. In the earlier extract from St Ephrem, he says “the earth darkened with sacrifices’ fumes” – Should have been about homams (Yagna or Pooja); “A land of people dark” – Most people are clear of the other dark people, the Africans, and this reference is not about Africans.

See I am not trying to prove of St. Thomas’ arrival but definitely there are enough and more remarks of early Christians in the India. The trade between Malabar coast and Middle East were also supportive to this, giving the chances of ancient Christianity arriving here quite early.

Pliny the Elder says it’s easy to reach Muziris (ancient seaport on Malabar coast): get on a boat, set the sail and if monsoons are on the way the boat will be there in 40 days. To return use the reverse monsoon season.

Ok. Now another topic. Does the Syro-Malabar Catholics use the Catholicized Chaldean rite?
The name sounds funny, right? Some of our younger people jokes – is having a Zero (pun for Syro) for our Sabha so bad [chuckles]

All the early Thomas Christians followed Chaldean rite. The 1599 Synod of Diamper they tried to Latinize us - they removed the mentioning of our Patriarchs in the Diptychs reading during the mass, this was replaced with the Pope names; some other edits on the liturgy was done. This infuriated the Nasranis. Over time the pent-up anger exploded in 1653 in the Coonen Cross episode. But even after 50 years of this event, the Latinized versions were loosely followed. Its only when one bishop Gregorios arrived that the West Syriac St. James liturgy was introduced into the Nasrani crowd. We (the Syro-Malabar Catholics) continued with the earlier sort-of Latinized Chaldean liturgy.

Dutch was anti-Catholic and so this enabled the visitation of the orthodox bishop Gregorios. However, this bishop still didn’t allow any native to be ordained.

Have you heard of the Palayur vs Arthattu camps’ arguments on which is the oldest church in Kerala? Some say Tipu Sultan’s army attacked the Arthattu curch because it was the ancient one.
Palayur is where we all hear that of the first church that St. Thomas established. Whether it is exactly in Palayur or slightly away, there is no evidence of any of this. But at least there is a strong tradition that it is in this region. The two places are quite close also.

Tipu had also burnt the Ollur church roof and our people ran helter-skelter. Many didn’t even come back even when Tipu retreated [smiles]. I don’t think he selected any ancient church to be destroyed. He was on an invasion and any resistance would have been met with appropriately, that’s all.

How old is the Ollur church?
Only some 300 years – it’s my parish. The colorful Raphael feast is only 200 years old. This church is however a pretty decorative and ornate.

I have a hypothesis – maybe there was Christianity throughout the Western Indian coast. Over time many parts of this reduced because of migration, forced inclusion into local-religions or transformations like in the Goan Inquisition. Now the remnant of the St Thomas Christians of yore survives only on the Malabar coast. It is so possible that this St. Thomas landing and seven church story may have been adapted later to suit the surviving crowd. Expand the scope of the land and the scenes must have acted out elsewhere. What do you think?
A plausibility and St. Thomas’ acts [smiles] elsewhere are also clearly mentioned in the Acts of Thomas. This says that Thomas came to India twice - first somewhere in North-West India and second to the South. This Acts of Thomas was considered fictitious till some historians found evidences of the King Gudnaphar, who is mentioned in this Acts, at Taxila in Pakistan. Therefore one part of the Acts seems to match with the dates and location.


Now consider this: The Ollur (St. Antony's Syro-Malabar Catholic) church has close to 5000 families, a very rich church. These parishioners say they are descendants of those who used are from the Pazhuvil (St. Antony's Syro-Malabar Catholic) church. Pazhuvil church is old, from AD 960. However, even the Pazhuvil parishioners don’t claim to be the oldest just to gain fame; they could - they have seashore nearby too to justify the Thomas story. However, they chose to claim to be descendants of those from the Enammavu (St. Mary’s) church, which is even older AD 510 or so. And the Enammavu parishioners say they were originally from the Palayur church where Thoma-Sleeha (Apostle Thomas) arrived.

And all of the Malayali St. Thomas Christian diaspora trace back, undisputedly, to one of the seven churches that St. Thomas built. Most of these seven churches are near the Sangam-age ports. All these are significant facts, too valuable to disregard.

Are the Knanayas the pure-descendants of the arrival. Or this is a recent re-group?
Well they seem to maintain the endogamy. They have large congregations at Chingavanom, Kottayam, Kallisery etc. By and large I think they are following some tradition.

And they still have very good interest in commerce now as when the same grants were conferred through their Copper-plates (Thomas of Cana plates of privileges)

But the Knanaya plates (of grants) are said to be missing, right?
Yes, but a translation of this plates (in Portuguese) are preserved in the British Museum. It should be there in one of my papers online, in my second book – Thomapedia.

6 March 2018

On the Kaldaya Sabha




Translated transcript of my interview with His Grace Dr. Mar Aprem Mooken at the Metropolitan’s Palace in Thrissur. H.G Dr. Mar Aprem heads what is the Chaldean Syrian Church, which is Indian avatar of the Assyrian Church of the East.

Thirumeni was his humorous and candid self that evening of 2nd February 2018; he bubbles with facts and figures, after all he is one Syrian Christian history enthusiast himself. Thirumeni is a scholar, has many publications under his belt and occasionally plays the Sitar!


For those readers who are familiar only with the two main Syrian factions (the Catholics & the Orthodoxies) in Kerala, to learn about this small church is like a ‘Googly’ to one’s own knowledge. Read on.




So, here in this church isn’t there Qurbana(mass) on Saturday evenings?
No, as in our churches the Priests must take fast before the Qurbana. And this is quite difficult to maintain, especially me as I am a diabetic [chuckles].
I barely survived the three-day Ninevah lent we went through recently, my sugar-levels had shot up alarmingly.
So mostly we have only on Sunday mornings, when we start at around 7:30 am and end at 10 am.

Oh! So long? two and half hours?
No, the Qurbana core is just one hour. This stretch is because of the choir, sermons et al. You see some of our younger priests are eager to express their enthusiasm [smiles] and so indulges in a long musical-Qurbana sometimes. I told them limit themselves as the members may not approve of their long shows [chuckles]

Is there only one Chaldean Syrian parish here (in Thrissur)?
No, there are some five churches here.

What’s the membership size like?
Well the total count, I hear, is like twenty-five thousand (25000) across India. Sometime the stats say 20000. May be some keep leaving the church for the 'Charismatics' or the Pentecostals or for marriages to the other Sabhas [smiles] (Sabha means church-group in this context)
We constitute some 32 parishes ... no! almost 34 parishes in total including in the Arabian Gulf. In number within Thrissur I think we are next only to the Syro-Malabar Catholics (SMC). The Orthodox, Marthomites & CSIs are lower in number here. But the first church in Thrissur city is our's and is more than 200 years old. Its only after that the All Saints' Church of the CSIs came up in 1840. The Catholic church, I mean the SMC, came up only in 1887.

Which brings me to one of my main question: Is this Sabha, the Chaldean Syrian church, the 'unCatholized' (if I may use that term) version of what was existing here in India before the Portuguese?
We claim the earliest church in Malabar was ours.

It is said that Saint Thomas first went to Urumia in Persia and went back when Virgin Mary was about to die; all the disciples were called in. After the funeral, they all dispersed again. St. Thomas is said to have then come to India in AD 52 and through him there was a sort of extension or continuity of a church … of Persian origin. The Christians here then were possibly with the business people or the Jews who were already here since long. This Persian church was later nicknamed 'Nestorian' church.

Was there a difference in the beliefs amongst these mainstream churches?
Yes, and rather difficult to understand. There was a bishop named Nestorius, he was condemned in the Council of Ephesus of AD 431 by Cyril of Alexandria. The two were arch enemies. Cyril was an older bishop from AD 412. Nestorius was a monk at Antioch and became a bishop of Constantinople from AD 428. The Emperor then had already shifted his capital from Rome to Constantinople and was a patron of Nestorius. To tell a long story short, Cyril was jealous of Nestorius.
In the Council, Cyril gathered forces and used the term Theotokos (Mother of God) on Virgin Mary to irk Nestorius – it was widely known then that Nestorius had a particular Christology on this matter.  Nestorius maintained that this term is not even in in the Nicean creed. Cyril retorted that Christ is God and Virgin Mary is so the Mother of God. Nestorius argued that if She is Mother then Christ becomes her child or grandchild? [giggles] Anyways this argument led to the controversy and ended with the excommunication of both! And both were put in prison. Cyril tried to escape; Nestorius agreed for exile and he died to AD 451.

In AD 451 Council of Chalcedon was held, and he think Chalcedon were a triumph of Nestorianism where the view that Christ has two concrete natures. Cyril and Antiochian Christology were contemplating a sort of mixed nature for Christ - that is not in two natures but of two natures of God - this view was accused of Monophysitism.

The Jacobites say now that they deny the term Monophysitism and that they believe in both natures of Christ. We Nestorians says we deny the ‘accusation’ about Nestorianism, because in this philosophy we are not dividing Christ into two. We Nestorians believe in the unity of God & Jesus in one person but with two Hypostasis (called Noema in Greek), which again there were different views on this: we say there was an individuated nature while the Cyril party accuses again that this again mean separated persons.

I think I lost you in that Christology talk. Anyways during those times, where the rites or liturgies of different camps (Rome, Antioch, Babylon) the same?
At least two of them should have existed separately. Ours is of the Liturgy of Addai and Mari, the Antiochians and Jerusalem sides followed the Liturgy of St. James – so both liturgies are from early centuries. These should have predated the Nestorian controversy and disputes. Both churches developed in different regions over time.

The Roman empire or the Christians following the tradition of that region believe that there is the only one Christendom and that is around Rome, which is a wrong understanding. They forget there was such an Eastern Christendom, even the historians ignore this treasure. Its only now that people like Sebastian brock, a renowned scholar, have tried convince the world that there something outside of Latin & Greek Christianity and this is Eastern (Syriac) Christianity - which again is divided in two. It was political and personal rivalry that cut off the Eastern Christianity off the mainstream.

In AD 424 the Eastern church held a Synod and decreed that nobody from this church should appeal to the Western church – and that our Catholicos’ (Mar Dadisho) word is final and enough. Somehow the church survived (and developed or deteriorated) on our own till now. As India was under this Nestorian church, we too felt and ebbs and lows accordingly.


Ok BTW Where is this Persia you are talking about? Are you referring to Kurdistan?
Yes. Most of Northern Iraq, parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria. Erbil is supposedly the capital of the Kurdistan. Some say this the native of the patriarch Abraham and Jacob. The location of the ‘Ur of the Chaldeas’.
Flanked by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, this is the womb of the Babylonian Christianity. Nowadays the Nestorian church prefers to be called as Assyrian Christianity or Persian church. The name Chaldeans are used by the Catholic sister church.

You see, unfortunately in history, the Pope of Rome created a separate Catholic Patriarchate in 1553 for the sole purpose of weakening the Eastern churches and the Catholic Chaldean Church was born. There is even a Syrian Catholic church that split the members of the erstwhile Syrian Orthodox church in that region.

BTW we had invited the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch too for the 2015 consecration of our new Patriarch. We had common roots. The Chaldeans were in reconciliation and unification mode - told us to unite and the Patriarch offered to resign even to elect new one in unity; however, we smelled something fishy - we had only 15 prelates and while their side had 22, so one of them may be elected in the end! Therefore, we declined the offer and told lets proceed in our own ways.

I was the chief consecrator as I was the acting Patriarch for six months being the senior most Metropolitan of this church. In the election, I was elected but then they preferred somebody who can communicate in Arabic. So, we elected another – the then Archbishop of Baghdad, now he is Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Gewargis III


This church still exist in this region or have they shifted elsewhere?
1933 our then Patriarch, Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, was exiled to Cyrus. From there he moved to England to Chicago to finally San Francisco. That Patriarch was shot dead in 1974. Then for two years this church was without a Patriarch and some internal turmoil ensued. In
1976 Mar Dinha was elected in England. But he was afraid to come back to his native country Iran as then entering Iraq after that would have been difficult – remember the Iraq-Iran war? Mar Dinha thought the safest bet was to take US citizenship.
The Chaldeans (Catholic) ridiculed as to why should he keep the title ‘Patriarch of the East' if he stays in USA. Anyways during my time the headquarters was shifted back to Arbil.
Politically very unstable region and dangerous too. Turkey and Iran says they will block the Kurdi oil supply lines to West and East - we can only drink it [laughs]
The Americans are supportive of a Kurdistan only because we are listening to them these days. They have a base very close to Patriarchate and they can snoop at Iran.

At any time in history was there a country called Kurdistan?
No. Kurds kept demanding for one but never materialized. And it will be increasingly difficult going forward.

We had asked for an Assyrian nation to the League of Nation, when our Patriarch was called for a reconciliation with the Kurds. He was cheated and shot dead in 1918. Mar Abimalek Thimotheus from here (Thrissur) argued the case in England. At that time, they (the League of Nations) promised a Kurdistan for the Kurds & Assyrian Christians if we participated with them in the (First) World War. Initially we were with the Russians, but they left us with their weapons when the Russian Revolution pulled them back to their Fatherland.
After the war the then Patriarch sister, Lady Surma, who was earmarked for presidency received even a congratulatory-letter from USA. This never materialized due to the complicated politics that is beyond me.
Kurdistan is now semi-autonomous .... there was a referendum recently but I see difficulties with hostilities all around.


Why do you keep referring to the Assyrian people as 'we' and 'us’?!
Yes, just for the Assyrian solidarity [laughs]. No, we here are not Assyrians by ethnicity, we are pure Indians.

I was curious to know if you know anybody with actual Assyrian roots. I have read that many bishops came in to Malabar with their entourage and settled here. Somebody may have married into the Nasrani crowd?
No, don’t know anyone of such Assyrian lineage. We have had mostly foreign bishops, except one Mar Anthony Abdisho Thondanat who was from Elamthottam near Palai.
Ah! There was a secretary, from Mosul, to Mar Timotheus who taught him Malayalam and taught Syriac to the students then. He stayed here and used to make good wines [smiles] is what I heard.
One Cor-Episcoca Michael Augustine who died in 1912 was also a foreigner.
However, none of them had families.

Mar Anthony Abdisho Thondanat – the lone Indian Chaldean bishop who disappeared to obscurity. Interesting.  Is there still any family of that name?
Yes. Their neighbors scared the hell out of them. The local Catholic prelates of that time broke his spirit, also kept the family in place by reminding them that this was a cursed bishop as he worked against the true (Catholic) church.
Since I was a student of church history, I dug out and searched this family out and even performed a remembrance mass that their church at Elamthottam, of course with permission from the relevant catholic authorities. This created furore back in the congregation as they thought I was trying to revive something 'heretical' that Kurikose Chavara achen (Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara, C.M.I.)  had buried long time ago.
We initially thought of building a church in his name there but received heavy resistance from that place as you know Palai is a Catholic stronghold [smiles] I decided to not waste our energy there. Let bygones be bygones.

BTW, your priests can get married?
Yes, unlike the Jacobites/Orthodoxies who need to marry before priesthood, our priests can do even afterwards. So obviously, we keep receiving a few priests from elsewhere because this flexibility. One from Orthodox, one from the Jacobite camp and even 2 SMCs joined our church because they wanted to get married after they became priests.
However, we also lose members and even priest - at least one these priests who jumped ship have become a Pentecost now [chuckles]

How is this church’s relation with the Indian Orthodox Church and their rivals the Jacobite church?
Good relation with all of them.

I was a baptized Orthodox but now religiously non-aligned. I have heard from Sunday school that the earliest Nasranis was Orthodox. The Syro Malabar Catholics say that they were the earliest and us Orthodoxies split from them. What do you have to say on these versions of history?
Everyone loves their own associations and proud of their own versions [chuckles]
But now the Indian Orthodox Church now agrees that our church was the earliest in this part of the world.
My doctorate-thesis was on this subject and I concluded as this Thrissur church (that is our Nestorian or Assyrian church) is the faithful remnant of Pre-Portuguese Syrian Christianity in India. The SMC(s) in my panel, which included Xavier Koodapuzha, wanted me to rewrite this as "I am inclined to think that this church maybe the faithful remnant ..." I declined and asked for evidences against my conclusion. Theophilus Thirumeni and other two Marthomites, in the same panel, supported my view.

Look by at the historical events – even the First Marthoma, Parambil Thomas Kathanar, was even consecrated by one of us in May 22, 1653. It was only a decade later that Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel came in and then the communion with the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch was established. There were no Orthodox before that.

The Jacobites though still wants to impress there may have been some frequent visitations of their bishops in the past and that Antiochian-Orthodoxy was prevalent in Malabar. My argument, if so, then it should had been highlighted in the Synod of Diamper! But this Synod talks only of the “the Nestorian heresy”.

I have published, through SEERI, my other doctorate-thesis: "History of Syrian History in the 20th century"

Is there a name for the two Syriacs that is used here in Keralite churches?
I don’t remember the exact name.
I think it is Serta but the Jacobites/Orthodox calls it Serto.
The SMC and Nestorians use the Eastern Syriac script or Chaldeac. The capital letters of the same is I believe called Estrangela.

Shuha laha Lavra val Ruha d'kudisha” in our Qurbana becomes “Shubaho LAbo LaBro val Ruho Kadeesho” in your Qurbano
The simple rule for translation is that all 'Ah' sounds in Eastern Syriac are made 'Oh' sounds in Western Syriac [smiles]
Mar Aprem become Mor Aprem.
Allaha becomes Alloho


Can you write my name in Chaldeac?
I don’t write it much these days but let me try (Thirumeni writes my name from left of the page to right)

It looks like some predecessor of Arabic. (I write down my name against it in Arabic and show. Thirumeni examines the script with a lens)
Yes. I don’t remember much Arabic now though; I had learnt it once upon a time.
As I mentioned before, I lost out on the Patriarchate position only because of this. When they asked me of my Arabic proficiency I told them you should have told me about this prerequisite before I decided to do my Phd in Syriac [laughs]
But I guess there was some rule that only of Assyrian ethnicity can be the Patriarch, so it was not destined for me. Anyways I argued against this rule and got it amended later; forget me at least in future there may be equal chance for all [smiles]

Wasn’t this church formalized after the ‘Mellus and Roccus’ issue?
Not exactly. Of the non-orthodox faction, of the 18th century, some 52 mercantile families were invited Shaktan Thampuram (Rama Varma IX, Ruler of then Kingdom of Cochin). At the same time a Syro-Catholic lobby at Angamali was striving for an indigenous bishop. For this purpose, one Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar, he who wrote the Varthamanapusthakam, went to Portugal along with one Joseph Kariattil and the latter became the Archbishop. This archbishop died under mysterious circumstances in Goa. Hearing of this there was a revolt at Angamali at that time.
In AD 1815 was when this church here was built, some of my ancestors were conducting their business from this region. We got one Kathanar(Priest) from Palai to consecrate this church as per Chaldean Syrian rites. What I am coming to is that this rite was prevalent at that time, just that the factions were not yet clearly segregated.

So while there were no native bishops to guide the non-Orthodox Syrian laity and this same group were a non-receptive to a Latin or foreigner. At this time one Mar Thomas Rochos was brought here by the priests Kodakachira and Abdisho Thondanattu. Within 10 months, Chavara Achen (Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara) hounded him out of the country. Chavara Achen accused that this bishop has no authority here, and so Rochos was put him in a boat and sent away. However, Thondanattu also accompanied him in that boat. This priest went to Babylon asked the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch for him to be consecrated for the benefit of the Indians. The Latin influence was strong enough to deter Chaldeans in doing this, so then Thondanattill searched out for the Nestorian Patriarch in the mounts of Kurdistan on a mule-chariot. It is said that the Chaldeans performed the maharon (excommunication) while Thondanattill was enroute on this journey and cursed up all along the way.
He came back consecrated a bishop, the first Indian Chaldean/Assyrian bishop, but didn’t find much support back home. Was ostracized and isolated by community members, Chavara achen asked him to relent and turn back to Catholicism. He agreed and spent some of his days as a dejected vicar at the Vilakkumadom church.

All this while, we here were still waiting here for the arrival of our shepherd [chuckles] And a new bishop arrives at this time in 1874, Mar Yohannan Elias Mellus, and enquires why all this confusion there was a bishop of your kind we had consecrated back in Erbil. Then we searched Thondanattil out and brought him to this church. Those were during his last days.

The Syro-Malabar church was formed, finally only in 1887, after a lot of lobbying for the indigenous Syrian bishop. Initially they were head by Jesuit bishops Mar Adolph Medlycott and Charles Lavigne. Now this newly formed SMC sabha wanted our this church-premises and its members. But he held onto our faiths and then ensued a legal battle that we won finally in 1925. After that whoever was allied to the SMC left us, the SMCs built the largest church in Asia just adjacent to our compound…. as possibly a show of strength [smiles] Now the SMC diocese is I believe like 400,000 member strong.


What in your opinion was the decline of the Nestorian church’s influence over the Nasranis over the last centuries?
Political and geographical reasons: Kurdistan region was kind of always land-locked, the Portuguese rule over the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf made matters worse for bishops to travel.
Otherwise the Nestorian church was the church across Asia - there are historical evidences from Japan to China to Qatar to Socotra. Even one of Prophet Muhammad's wives is said to be a Nestorian Christian - one of the reasons why there were few skirmishes between these two communities back then. Later even this soured.

During the time of the Caliph al-Mahdi (8th century), there was a dialogue with our Patriarch Timothy I. The two had their palaces in adjacent compounds and this was prosperous era for Babylon – arts & literature flourished. I say that the incursion of the Catholics changed the equation: you must have heard about the Crusades and how that has soured the Christian-Muslim relationship. By like 16th and 17th century Rome managed to contest with a catholic sister church against every other Christian faction in the Middle East. This weakened all of the Eastern Syriac Christianity.

One bishop Mar Joseph Sulaqa who came in 1556, was taken to Rome for inquisition in spite of his predecessor being from the Catholic spin off our church - the Chaldean catholic church. He also died mysteriously there.

I hear there were a few Chaldean/Assyrian bishops who are interred in churches here?
Yes, I have been to some of these.  Mar Gabriel, a Nestorian bishop, had stayed at St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church (Cheriya-Pally) at Kottayam till he passed away 1731. I think I located the grave the last time I was visited the pally (church).  


I was invited, by Cardinal, to the Angamali SMC church for the tomb-renovation of the last Nestorian bishop to the Saint Thomas Christians: Mar Abraham. He was supposedly Catholicized but we believe he didn’t really change his orientations. The Synod of Diamper in June 1599 was called after his demise and we were forced to be subjected under Archbishop Menezes, Goa archbishop who has no authority here.

The skeletal-remains found in the St Thomas Orthodox Church Karthikapally is also probably of an Assyrian bishop. There was some writing near the remains, couldn’t read it as it was quite old and unclear but the script looks like Estrangela to me.

In year 1503 or is it 1504, a few bishops landed here and disappeared - Mar Yabh Alaha, Mar Thomas. Mar Jacob and Mar Dinha. Some say they all are interred in different churches here. Don’t know the truth of these though.


Did we, the Nasranis, follow the Latin rites at any time during the Portuguese?
Of course, for a long time since the Synod of Diamper. They (Portuguese) burnt a lot of our manuscripts during this Synod and were subjugated under them for at least 53 years!
Finally, one Mar Ahattalah (again with some obscure and yet unidentified allegiance) came here to support us. He met some of our priests stationed at Goa and told them to wait for him in Cochin. When the ship carrying Mar Ahattalah arrived at Cochin, the Parankees (Portuguese) suspiciously declared that he had fell into the sea and drowned. This incident as you know led to the Coonan Cross revolt on 3rd January 1653.
In short, from Synod of Diamper in 1599 till Coonan Cross Oath in 1653 all Saint Thomas Christian (or Nasranis) were forced to follow the Latin rite. During this time the married priests were forcibly divorced and their children were put into orphanages.


Is there any east-west axis difference for our churches here? Or so I have read.
Not really, the Syrian churches were just strictly with Madbaha(Altar room) towards the East. As our Lord comes from the East.
Others just consider convenience and the road access. Now mostly it’s about convenience and the land orientations. This is not so strictly enforced.

Where is most of the written resources kept for your church?
Iraq, The Baghdad Patriarch has collected over 300 manuscripts.
In Mannanam, Kottayam the Catholics may have the second best collections and lastly with us here in this Palace.
But very little preserved-correspondence between India and Eastern church headquarters survives.
I had digitized some of the Syrian works here into DVDs and had presented to the Pope as well as the Chaldean-Assyrian Patriarchates.
Mar Roccus and Mar Mellus, who we talked about earlier, both had brought some books and left them here.


Isn’t Mar Sabor-Mar Afroth not mentioned in any of these records?
No, nobody was so far able to trace their origins in any of their records. Neither in ours nor in the Antiochian side.

One researcher from Budapest University was here till last week. He says we may have been reading the copper plates wrong all along. He says maybe there is such Tharisapally (as this word may not even be what we think it is, may not be even Syriac or Pahlavi!) so the interpretation that 'Thrisa' meaning 'Orthodox' or 'Right way' maybe wrong. This researcher says a panel of historian with various linguistic specialties should sit together to make any sense of the plates.

The Knanayas – any connections?
If the legends are correct then they too may be from one of the Eastern church – probably Nestorian. But again, no proofs or connecting records on this too.

Is Mar Aprem of the Eastern church same as Ephrem the Syrian?
In AD 366 it was the undivided church and so this ‘Harp of the Spirit’ is venerated by all current factions. Mar Aprem was fortunate. There was another great contributor Mar Narsai of AD 503. By this time the Nestorian church was isolated and so poor fellow didn’t get the recognition he deserved.

How was Shaktan Thampuran to the Nasranis? Did he have a love-hate relation with the Christians?
When Tipu Sultan attacked the Kingdom of Cochin, his army created havoc all around - burned the Arthattu and Ollur churches, forced conversions at Kunnumkulam. Shaktan Thampuram was brave enough to confront this.
After the conflicts, Shaktan Thapuram decided to repair Thrissur and he needed the Christians for commerce. So he invited the teak-traders, the Tharakans et al. We the Mookens were said to be salt merchants. Our mother's side family, Parapully, were coffee traders – they used to purchase the beans from the British in Ooty. All of these Christian families were made to stay at Thekkeangadi just near this church.
Shaktan Thampuram was also very cruel in punishments whatever the community and so we hear some good and bad stories about him.

Has Thirumeni identified successors?
Yes, we have two auxiliaries. There is a large seminary compound of 52 acres where we train priest for continuity.