Christian Heritage in India
By Maxwell Pereira
mfjpkamath@gmail.com

That INTACH had been engaged in the mammoth task of identifying, documenting, conserving the country’s art and cultural heritage – and undertaking restoration work of selected monuments of historical and architectural significance, is common knowledge. The focus hitherto, was on ancient Hindu heritage, that of Jains and Buddhists, and the more recent Muslim heritage. Nothing, however, had yet been attempted on Christian heritage in the country; despite Christianity in India being 2000 years old.

Christian Heritage in India is possibly an area interest for Intach now. We are now to witness talks and presentations on the subject by end January 2006.

Christians today are the 3rd largest community in India. Kerala Christians date back to St. Thomas, one of Christ’s twelve Apostles, who arrived here in 52 AD. Then the Portuguese after Vasco da Gama’s opening the sea route to India in 1498 spread their brand of Christianity alongside making money from trade. They left a large Christian community in Goa and along the west coast.

The first round of Indian converts to Christianity were generally from the ruling classes, and subsequently and especially during the 19th century onwards from the lower castes. However, if success is counted in number of converts, Christianity has not been greatly successful in India. If proselytising over five centuries could not succeed in making Christians number more than 3% of the total population, why the paranoiac fears for fundamentalists and others, over this miniscule community’s suspected designs and over their conversions, totally beats me!

Today there are two small states (Mizoram and Nagaland) where Christians form a majority of the population. A quarter of the population of Kerala and a third of Goa are also Christian. India has around 25 million Christians.

Referring to an apocryphal book "Acts of Thomas" written around 200 AD, the Malankara church in Kerala informs how Thomas the Apostle was brought to India by Habbanes - a merchant Ambassador for King Gondaphores of the Indo-Parthian Kingdom of the Indus Valley. At the wedding of King Cheraman Perumal’s daughter (of Chera Kingdom) he meets the local Jewish community, who become his first converts.

Thomas then leaves for Takshasila, the University City in the Indus Valley – the capital of Hondaphorus, and establishes a church in that region before travelling to other areas of India – said to have been destroyed during Kushan and Moghal invasions. On returning to Kerala, he establishes seven churches with 75 Brahmin families as teachers and over 3000 converts from Kshatriyas, Nairs and Chettiars. Called the “St Thomas Christians”, their church is one of the most ancient in Christendom. The original seven churches are at Malankara, Palayur, Paravoor, Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Chayal and Kollam.

Even though Thomas is credited with bringing Christianity to India, it was the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier who spread Christian activity in the country. He arrived in the 16th century and his body still lies in the Bom Jesus Basilica in Goa.

In the early period, Christians of Kerala modelled their churches after Hindu temples, as is evidenced by the alleged action of Vasco-da-Gama in entering a Kali temple at Calicut mistaking it for a Christian church. The indigenous tradition which influenced church architecture continued till the coming of the Portuguese in 1498 AD.

As part of their policy of Latinisation, the Portuguese then introduced innovations in the design of church buildings. The massive arch replaced the thick entrance door and stained glass windows were installed to allow more ventilation. The sanctum chamber (Madubaha) was attractively ornamented with statues of wood or clay, and beautiful paintings on the wall. The first church to be built in the new style, Santo Antonio (the present St. Francis church, Cochin), provided the model for construction of more churches in India.

Pietro della Valle, the Italian traveller who visited Mangalore in 1623 mentions three churches there. In 1526 some Franciscan priests from Goa had entered Canara – then a domain of Krishna Deva Raya of Vijayanagar. They established the three churches – Rosario Cathedral at Bolar, Our Lady of Mercy at Ullal and St Francis of Assissi at Farangipet –the current Monte Mariano.

In mid 16th century, Sivappa Naik ruled as Raja of Canara at whose hands churches suffered, only to be rebuilt again. In 1663, the Portuguese were defeated by the Dutch in Cochin. The Dutch being bitter anti-Catholics, Portuguese missionaries in Canara had to retreat to Goa. Then Hyder Ali conquered the Bednore Kingdom in 1763. He sought Ferangipet’s parish priest Fr Joachim Miranda’s prayers for his military campaigns. But Tippu Sultan suspected the Canara Catholics of helping the British against him, and took them into captivity to intern them at Srirangapatnam. Tippu banished Miranda to Tellicherry and other priests exiled to Goa, to deprive the Catholics of their spiritual leadership.

While all European nations that forayed into India – including the Dutch and the French, contributed their own brand of church architecture, it was left to the British then to litter the length and breadth of the Indian countryside with an exquisite tapestry of prayer houses, chapels, churches and cathedrals in their own style and brand of colonial architecture – the legacy of the Imperial Raj, When the British left India in 1947 though, the Christian churches suffered a dramatic collapse in numbers of members, funding and support.

Talking of heritage and heritage sites, while St Thomas’s grave is believed to be at San Thome, Chennai…. And of St Francis Xavier’s body in Goa, not many perhaps know about the martyred Queen of Georgia: St Ketavan, interred within the collapsed Church of Our Lady of Grace in Goa! Also that Vasco de Gama’s gravestone can still be seen at St Francis Church, Kochi; and the mausoleum of Job Charnok the founder of Kolkata at St John’s church in Calcutta.

Or for that matter, that the records of Indian churches are the greatest genealogical source to trace their ancestry for many a Briton and European, as well as Anglo-Indian and Indian-Christian all over the world!


950 words: 24.01..2006: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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