St. George Orthodox Cathedral Abu Dhabi

Malankara Orthodox Church

The Indian Orthodox Church was founded in the state of Kerala, in India, by St. Thomas the Apostle, around 52 AD. It is one of the ancient Churches of the world.

The Indian Orthodox Church is Eastern in origin and Asian-African in its moorings. It is neither Western, nor Reformed. It is not Roman Catholic or Protestant.

The Indian Orthodox Church is autonomous, but belongs to the family of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and to the wider group of the world’s Orthodox Churches, which have a membership of about one hundred and twenty five million. In the early centuries, the St. Thomas Christians, have had contacts and links with sister Churches in Persia, and Syria. Some of the Syrian traditions have crept into the Indian Orthodox Church, and hence they are also called Syrian Christians.

During the post-Portuguese period, the Indian Orthodox Church came face-to-face with the Roman Catholic Church, and later, during the British period, with the Protestant Church. These and other vicissitudes resulted in small break-away groups joining or forming non-Orthodox Christian denominations.

However, the mainstream of the descendants of St. Thomas the Apostle have remained true to the original faith. The Orthodox Church is based more on worship and a holy life of love and service than on preaching and proselytizing. These factors are the basis of all thoughts and actions, and also the reason for its survival through periods of oppression. 

Saint Thomas Apostle of India

Saint Thomas Apostle of India
A Historical Perspective by His Eminence Metropolitan Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios The Church of St. Thomas It can only be a gift of Grace that the faith and tradition of a small community of the early Christians in India have remained alive and vibrant throughout nearly two thousand years. Even amidst periodic storm, from one source or another, across these centuries of change, the community has maintained an inner calm, in the safety of the spiritual anchor, cast in the original concept of the word Orthodox, that is the right glorification of God. 

The early Christians of India (mainly on the southern coast) were known as Thomas Christians and indeed by no other name – until the advent of the Portuguese in the 16th century followed closely by the British. 

That the Church in India was founded by St. Thomas the apostle is attested by West Asian writings since the 2nd century (The Doctrine of the Apostle Thomas and the Acta Thomae), both of which were written at or near Edessa ca 200-250 AD – St. Ephrem, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregorios Nazianzen, in the 4th century; St. Jerome, ca 400 AD, and historians Eusabius ca 338 and Theodore, of the 5th century.

Against the background of trade between India and west asia since ancient times, travel close to the coast of Arabia was feasible and not uncommon, reaching Malabar, the Tamil country, Sindh (Scythia) and western India (Kalyan), around the time St. Thomas came to India.

There is a wealth of corroborative evidence to support, and no good reason to doubt the living tradition of St. Thomas Christians that the Apostle arrived in Kodungalloor (Muziris) in Kerala in 52 AD, preached the gospel, established seven churches, and moved on to other kingdom, returning to Madras (Mylapore) in 72 AD where he was martyred that year. Writers of the 4th century, St. Ephrem and St. John Chrysostom knew also about the relics of St. Thomas resting at that time in Edessa, having been brought there from India by West Asian merchants.

Saint Gregorios of Parumala

Among the Early Christians 
The Orthodox Church in India is one of the 37 Apostolic Churches, dating from the time of the disciples of Christ. Nine of them were in Europe and 28 in Asia and Africa. Today it belongs to the family of the five Oriental Orthodox Churches, which include Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia and Armenia, and to the wider stream of the world’s Orthodox Churches, comprising in all over 150 million Eastern Christians. It has a strength of over 2 million members in about 1500 parishes mainly in Kerala and increasingly spread all over India and in many parts of the globe. Eastern in origin and Asian in its moorings, the Indian Church is, at the same time, a distinctive and respected part of the rich religious mosaic that is India.

Until the 16th century, there was only one Church in India, concentrated mainly in the south west. The seven original churches were located at Malankara (Malayattor?), Palayur (near Chavakkad), Koovakayal (near North Paravur), Kokkamangalam (South Pallipuram?), Kollam, Niranam and Nilackel (Chayal). Of the same pattern adopted by the other Apostles, each local Church was self-administered, guided by a group of presbyters and presided over by the elder priest or bishop.

The Indian Church was autonomous then, and is now, like all Orthodox Churches. This is clear from the fact that no name of any church in India is seen in the now available list of bishoprics of the Church in Persia from the fifth to the seventh century. 
The early Church in India remained one and at peace, treasuring the same ethnic and cultural characteristics as the rest of the local community. Its members enjoyed the good will of the other religious communities as well as the political support of the Hindu rulers. The Thomas Christians welcomed missionaries and migrants from other churches, some of whom sought to escape persecution in their own countries. The language of worship in the early centuries must have been the local language, probably a form of Tamil. In later centuries, the liturgical language mingled with East Syriac received through the churches of Selucia and Tigris.

 Links with Persia 
The Persian connection of the Indian Churches has to be seen in the context of the internal dissension 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-Ctesphion as the Catholicos of the East. Not long after, the christological controversies of Chalcedon, fuelled by the strains between the Persian and Byzantine empires, swayed the Persian Church to declare itself ‘Nestorain’ and its head to assume the title of Patriarch of the East (Babylon). From their base in the then flourishing theological school of Nisibis, Nestorain missionaries began moving to India, Central Asia, China and Ethiopia to teach their doctrines – probably associating 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 Patriarchs 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 Bardeus, emphasizing the West Syrian Christological tradition of the One United Nature, influencing the church in Persia as well. Availing the relatively equable political climate following the Arab conquest of Syria and other parts of West Asia, a Maphrianate of the anti-Chalcedonians was established by 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 dioceses in lower Mesopotamia and further east, but significantly, not to India.

On the life 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 Constantinople or Rome. There were times in this long period when the Christians in India had been without a bishop and were led by an Archdeacon. And requests were sent, sometimes with success, to one or another of the eastern prelates to help restore the episcopate in India. Meanwhile the church in Persia and much of west Asia 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 re-established in India (Kottayam) in 1912 while the former was transplanted to America in 1940.


The Colonial Era 
The post-Portuguese story of the Church in India

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 (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 a relationship which started for safe-guarding 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, ripen rather unnaturally by divided loyalty. First, the relocation in India in 1912 of the Catholicate of the East originally in Selucia 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 Antioch; 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 Yacoub III affirmed his acceptance of the Catholicos as well as the constitution. The fact that the Christian Church first appeared in India, as elsewhere, as a fellowship of self-governing communities, belonging to the same body and born into the same new life, may yet light the path to a future of peace, within and beyond the Orthodox community.

A Living Faith
As in the other Eastern Churches, the Orthodox faith is founded in a harmonious understanding of the Bible, the Liturgy and the life and work of the Fathers if the Church.

Starting with the Apostles of Christ and their direct disciples like Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna, the Fathers include other pre-Nicene Fathers if the second and third centuries like Clement of Alexandria, Irenus of Lyons and Hermas, the author of The Shepherd.

The Fathers of the three Ecumenical councils-the Synods of Nicea (325), Ephesus (381) and Constantinople (431)-as well as the Fathers who lived and taught during the period 300-450 AD, even if they were not present at these councils, are among the founders of the Orthodox Faith. They include Mar Athanasius, (ca 296-373) Mar Baselios (ca 330-379) Mar Gregorios Nizanzen (329-389) Mar Gregorios of Nyssa (330-395), Mar Cyrillos (died 444) and Mar Ivanios (St John Chrysostom, died 407). Of this period 325-451, mention must be made of Alexander of Alexandria, Mar Didymus the Blind, Mar Theophilos of Alexandria, Mar Eustathius of Antioch, Mar Eusebius of Caesarea, Mar Kurillos of Jerusalem, and Mar Dioscoros of Alexandria.

Many of these names are commemorated in the intercessory prayers (thoob-den) of the Eucharistic Liturgy, the last of them, remembered in the fifth thoob-den, is Mar Jacob of Edessa (died 708) and Mar Isaac of Nineveh (died 700). Without attempting an exhaustive list of the Fathers of the Church, the great ascetic tradition of the monastic fathers like St Antony, St Pachamios, St Makarios, St Simeon Stylites, and St Ephrem must be emphasized as a bedrock of the Orthodox Faith.

The articles of the faith, based on the conclusions of the three great councils of the Early Church, are contained in the Orthodox Creed, an essential part of the daily prayers of the faithful.

The Ethos of the Church 
The witness of the Orthodox Church is a quiet one. It is founded more on a life of worship, of love and of service than on preaching and proselytizing. This worship-orientation is its basis for all thought and action as well as the reason for its survival through recurrent terms of trial.

For the Orthodox, tradition is ever alive and is indeed the witness of the Holy Spirit, His unceasing revelation of good tidings. For the living members of the church, tradition is not so much an outward historical authority as the continual voice of God, not just the voice of the past but the call of eternity.

There is no better guarantee for the members of the church that they are following the right path than for them to preserve the organic unity with the saints, the holy men and women of the past generations who are known to have lived in communion with the Holy Spirit. The principle of apostolic succession upheld by the Orthodox Church has to be grasped in this light, as a living bond between successive generations of church members, preserving the unity of faith and life, in spite of the constant flow of time.

It is this concept of unity in which the individual voluntarily merges his or her life in the wider fellowship of the whole body, that has helped the Orthodox to preserve the truth of the Christian revelation. The identification with the familial community, rather than discipline through centralized authority, is the life-breath of the church. From this flows communitarian ethos of the church and the fine balance achieved between democratic functioning and Episcopal maturity. The role of the bishop is to sanction in the name of the church an action performed by the Holy Spirit, expressed as the unanimous will of all the members of the church, present and invisible, gathered to celebrate the Eucharist. This principle sustains the democratic orientation of the Orthodox community, indeed of all Eastern Churches.

The Constitution of the Orthodox Church in India (which has retained the traditional name, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church) was brought into force on 26 December 1934, with some amendments made later in1951 and 1967.

Article 4 defines membership of the church: ?All men and women, who have received Holy Baptism and believe in the divinity of the Holy Trinity, the incarnation of the Son, the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father, the Holy Church, and the application of the Nicene Creed, three-in-all, the divine inspiration of the Holy Traditions, the intercession of the Mother of God and the Saints, the commemoration of the departed ones, the administration of the seven sacraments and the canonical observances like fasting, and have accepted the obligation to observe them, will be members of the Church.

The Structure of Governance
The Constitution defines the institutional structure of the Church for preserving its integrity and autonomy and for administering its spiritual, ecclesiastical and temporal functions. It upholds the historical tradition that the Patriarchate of Syria and the Catholicate of the East freely function, each in its own sphere, mutually respecting and not interfering in each other?s domain. The church is self-governing under the ethical and spiritual guidance of its ecclesiastical head.

The representative basis of self-governance is assured at all the three levels__the parish, the diocese and the church as a whole. The Parish Assembly of all its members elects the Managing Committee each year from among the lay members. The vicar, appointed by the Diocesan Metropolitan is the joint-steward, together with the elected lay trustee of the assets of the parish, and presides over the managing committee and the parish assembly.

Likewise, the diocese is administered through the Diocesan Council representing all the parishes. It is presided over by the Diocesan Metropolitan and assisted by the Diocesan Secretary.

At the apex, the Church has a representative Association, by the traditional name of Malankara Syrian Christian Association. It consists of the priest and two lay elected by each Parish Assembly. The Church Managing Committee is drawn from among the members of the Association. The Catholicose, as the Malankara Metropolitan, presides over the Association and the Managing Committee. Those prelates having administrative charge of a diocese are vice-presidents of the Association.

The Catholicate in India
“I am the good shepherd: The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”  John 10:11

This verse, recited at the consecration of the Catholicose, echoes the essence of the Christian calling, personified by him.

The Catholicose is the supreme head of the Orthodox Church in India. The present Catholicose is the 89th chronological successor to the Catholicate of the East founded by St. Thomas the Apostle in Seleucia, later revived in Tigris and relocated in 1912 in Kottayam.

The prime jurisdiction regarding the temporal, ecclesiastical and spiritual administration of the church is vested in him, in his capacity as the Metropolitan of the Malankara Archdiocese. He is the trustee of the central assets of the Church, together with two elected co-trustees, a priest and a lay member of the Association.

The Malankara Metropolitan, as all Metropolitans, is elected by the Malankara Association and approved by the Holy Episcopal Synod. The Catholicose presides over the Holy Episcopal Synod which is the supreme authority in all matters concerning faith, order and discipline in the Church.