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Nestorians in India |
In the steps of

Nestorians in India is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 188, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Evidence mounts that early Christians planted a lasting church in India possibly explaining the quick success of later missions from the West

Nestorians in India - In the steps of ‘Doubting’ Thomas

Nestorians in India - In the steps of ‘Doubting’ Thomas
Young girls in a Kerala church reflect generations of Christianity in India, many families proudly claiming descent from converts of the Apostle Thomas. Christian missionaries are credited with the high level of literacy in Kerala state.

In the seventh century, when missionaries from Persia were just beginning to translate scripture for the Chinese emperor T’ai-Tsung, tradition holds that Christianity had long since been established in India, where the apostle Thomas first preached it nearly six hundred years earlier (see previous volume, The Veil is Torn). Landing at Cranganore in South India, St. Thomas is believed to have ranged north almost to Afghanistan, an itinerary even more extensive than St. Paul’s. But strong tradition is not the only evidence that “doubting Thomas”–and many courageous disciples after him–had effectively spread the faith throughout the Indian Subcontinent. There are artifacts as well, such as stone crosses with Pahlavi inscriptions that date from the Sassanid era.

After the fall of the Persian Empire to Islam in the seventh century, Christians in India were almost entirely cut off, and information about them is sparse. Enough remains, however, to show that they carried on regardless. The records of the Nestorian patriarchate at Baghdad, known as the Church of the East, reveal a tenuous but continuing Indian connection. For example, in the late ninth century, the Punjab city of Gandispur (later Shahabad) in northern India is listed as the seat of a metropolitanate. This presupposes the existence there of between six and twelve episcopal sees.

Nonecclesiastical sources include the geographer Cosmas Indicopleustes (Cosmas the Indian navigator), who in 525 reported substantial Christian communities in the Ganges Valley, Ceylon, Burma, Siam, Cochin China, and Tonkin. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo described six great kingdoms in central India. Three were Muslim, he said, and three were Christian monarchies that claimed St. Thomas as patron.1

On the southeast coast, Mylapur (now part of the city of Chenai) is the traditional site of the apostle’s martyrdom in A.D. 72. Here, too, his efforts and those of his successors apparently bore fruit. Historian John Stewart (Nestorian Missionary Enterprise: The Story of a Church on Fire) quotes a fifteenth-century traveler, Nicolo Conti, who calculated that there were then a thousand Christians in Mylapur alone, and many thousands more “scattered all over India, as the Jews are scattered among us.” (They were the only people in India, Conti added, who “confine themselves to one solitary mate.”)

There are even intriguing indications that Nestorian missionaries traveled into Burma and Thailand, and onward to such Malaysian islands as Java, Sumatra and Borneo. In 1503, for instance, Patriarch Elijah V of the Church of the East appointed a metropolitan for Java. A traveler who accompanied Syrian merchants to Burma in 1506 reported that one local prince there had a thousand Christians in his service.

Despite all this, although Western historians do acknowledge a Christian presence in India at least by the fourth century, they have never credited St. Thomas, or subsequent Persian evangelists, as having real impact upon its overwhelmingly Hindu population. In Western eyes, serious evangelization began there only in the sixteenth century, when European missionaries first arrived in force–and immediately reported gratifying numbers of conversions.

Quite aside from any other evidence, of course, this instant harvest might reasonably be considered significant in itself–an indication, that is, that seeds of faith had already been planted and nurtured there. Indian Christians believe that although their ancestors had been martyred over the years by disapproving Hindu rulers, and hammered hard by Muslim invaders, too, many Christian communities nevertheless still survived in the sixteenth century. Some were forcibly “Latinized” by Portuguese colonizers and Jesuit missionaries, and others later became “Eastern Rite Uniate” churches in communion with Rome. Still others managed to retain or restore their connection to Nestorian and Jacobite Syrian patriarchates, and to maintain their liturgies and scriptures in Syriac or Aramaic.

In the next five hundred years, things would become ever more complex, as other European powers displaced the Portuguese, as Protestant missionaries were added to the religious mix, and as Indian Christians struggled hard for ecclesiastical self-determination.2 Today, at least seven distinct groups–two of them Catholic and one Protestant–consider themselves “St. Thomas Christians,” under such names as Malankara, Malabar, Assyrian, Mar Thoma and Syrian Orthodox. Disparate though they are, however, they emphasize their common heritage. The saint’s reputed tomb in the Roman Catholic Church at Mylapur, for example, is a pilgrim site for Indian Christians of every stripe.

Furthermore, they appear to share a continued dedication to evangelism. Although few in number by comparison with Hindus and Muslims, Christians are India’s third largest religious group. The Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook (2004) lists them as 6.03 percent of the total population of 1.065 billion. Be it noted, however, that this amounts to some sixty-three million people (more than the population of Great Britain and twice that of Canada), and the state of Kerala on the southwest coast is twenty-two percent Christian.3

St. Thomas, that renowned pessimist, would surely be pleased–and characteristically surprised that things didn’t turn out worse.

1. Indian historians believe that the Nestorian Church in India was reinforced by a number of major immigrations of Persian traders, settlers and refugees. One likely was caused by the drastic persecutions of Shapur II in the fourth century, and coincidentally led by another Thomas–Thomas of Cana. A second may have occurred in the eighth century. Still another, early in the ninth, apparently founded the city of Quilon in the southwestern district of Kerala, with royal approval. Inscribed copper plates, some of which still exist, record the arrangements made with local officials.

2. In the late nineteenth century, Pope Leo XIII established in India three archdioceses and eight dioceses, most of them in the southwest. Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Latin has given way to local languages, and a dozen more dioceses have been added.

3. In another interesting statistic, the Indian government in 1990 proclaimed Kerala to be one hundred percent literate. This circumstance was considered so remarkable as to be included in the Guinness Book of World Records.

This is the end of the Nestorians in India category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 188, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Nestorians in India from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at