History of St. Thomas
Learn more about the patron saint of India whose feast on July 3 is celebrated as Indian Christians’ Day!
It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes. His grateful dawn dispelled India’s painful darkness. It was his mission to espouse India to the One-Begotten. The merchant is blessed for having so great a treasure. Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the greatest pearl India could yield. Thomas works miracles in India, and at Edessa, Thomas is destined to baptize peoples perverse and steeped in darkness, and that in the land of India.
— Hymns of Saint Ephrem, edited by Lamy (Ephr. Hymni et Sermones, IV).
From the Bible
St. Thomas, a simple fisherman from Galilee, was called by Jesus Christ to become one of His twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15). His name—’Thomas’ in Aramaic and ‘Didymus’ in Greek—means’ twin.’ He’s mentioned in all the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.
In John’s Gospel, we understand his utmost love for his Divine Master when He was about to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the grave. When the other disciples objected to the journey as Jesus was having a hard time with the Jewish leaders, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16). Such was his love for Jesus even before the descent of the Holy Spirit!
After the resurrection of Christ, when Jesus appeared before His disciples, Thomas was not with them. Later, he learned about this but could not believe it without proof. Eight days later, Jesus appeared again; this time, Thomas was with them. Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28).
It is this Apostle, who came from Jerusalem to India, preached the Gospel, set up the first Christian communities, and was ultimately martyred here.
From The Acts of Thomas
The Acts of Thomas was initially written in Syriac and later translated into Greek. This document contains thirteen Acts, including accounts of St. Thomas’ journey from Jerusalem to India, his ministry, and martyrdom.
From this account, we learn that after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostles consulted among themselves to decide who would go to which part of the world. When drawing lots, ‘India’ fell to St. Thomas. Initially, he did not wish to come here, saying, “I am a Hebrew; how can I preach the Word of God to Indians?”
But, that night, Jesus Himself appeared to him and said, “do not fear, Thomas, go to India and preach the Word; my grace is with you.”
At the same time, an Indian merchant named Habban was there to hire a skillful carpenter as per the order of Gundaphorous, the king of India. So, the next day, St. Thomas journeyed with Habban as a carpenter to the kingdom of Gundaphorous in North India.
After staying there for some time, he proceeded to Malabar.
Missionary Work in India
The Syrian Christians of Kerala have firmly maintained the tradition through several generations that their ancestors adopted Christianity through the ministry of the Apostle Thomas. According to their tradition, the Apostle landed at Cranganore (Kodungallur) in 52 A. D., a flourishing seaport then. Ancient geographers called it ‘Mouziri.’ Throughout Malabar, it is believed that St. Thomas founded seven churches or groups of Christians in Cranganore or Maliankara, Palur or Palayur, Parur or Kottakavu, Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Chayal or Nilakal, and Kollam or Quilon.
As per tradition, he preached and ministered in these places for over ten years. After his ministry in the Malabar region, he travelled to Mylapore along the Coromandel coast. According to a tradition of St. Thomas Christians, Little Mount was remembered by them as the place where the Apostle was martyred. The Eastern Christians whom the Portuguese found in India in the early sixteenth century agreed that Little Mount was indeed the spot where the Apostle lived, preached, and died.
Christian communities existed in India in the first century in Mylapore and further south, down to Cape Comorin and Malabar. On the Coromandel Coast, there were Christians in Vaipar and Vembar before the Paravar community adopted Christianity in 1534 A.D. To confirm this, Fr. Hosten, the author of ‘Antiquities from San Thorne and Mylapore’ referred to Fr. Roz’s ‘Relacao Sobre a Serra,’ published by the British Museum, London, in 1604 A.D. He mentions that at Vaipar and Vembar (Bembar), from Tuticorin to the north, there were people who, though not Christians, considered themselves as the stock of the ancient Christians of Malabar. They called themselves Tarideical Naiquemar (Taritayakkal Nayakkanamar) Christians (Tarisa). Tarisa is from the Syriac ‘Trisa,’ which means ‘right, orthodox.’
Awfi, a Muslim traveller who visited India in the thirteenth century, recorded that Christians were found all along the West Coast from Sind up to the Coromandel coast! From his notes, we could infer that some Christians of Malabar migrated to these villages (Vaipar and Vembar) and settled for trading and fishing, or the Apostle stayed in the seashore of these villages during his journey from Kollam (Quilon) to Mylapore and planted an early community of Christians.
St. Thomas in Little Mount
Little Mount is one of the three places on the Coromandel coast actively associated with the missionary work of the Apostle. The tradition of St. Thomas Christians remembers Little Mount as the place of his martyrdom. However, in 1547 A.D., a Portuguese excavation at Big Mount discovered a stone cross with blood stains that miraculously reappeared even after cleaning it. This bleeding stone cross led the Portuguese to believe St. Thomas was killed at Big Mount.
Since then, the tradition is that St. Thomas lived and preached at Little Mount, was mortally wounded there, fled to Big Mount (St. Thomas Mount), where he died, and later was buried in the Church at Mylapore (Santhome Cathedral).
The exact spot where St. Thomas died was not recorded in the early centuries. But a Syrian writer, Jesuab, who lived in the 7th century, uses the word “Calamina” to denote the place of the Apostle’s martyrdom.
Calamina is a corruption of the Tamil word ‘Kanmalai’ or ‘Kalmalai,’ which means ‘rocky knoll,’ probably denoting Little Mount.
The Portuguese gave the name ‘Little Mount’ to distinguish it from Big Mount (St. Thomas Mount), before which it may have been known as ‘Kanmalai’ or ‘Kalmalai.’
An Apostolic Legacy
Going through the various traditions collated by the Portuguese in the 16th century, we know that there was a flourishing community of Christians on the Coromandel Coast. They, at one time or another, had migrated to the Malabar Mountains. There are different views regarding the cause of this migration: some speak of natural disasters like floods and earthquakes; others talk of man-made disasters like war, persecution and so on. It must be observed that, at this time, Kerala was a part of a broader entity called ‘Thamizhagam.’
According to these traditions, the original community, after the death of St. Thomas, underwent a decline. But it was reinvigorated with the Christians coming from Persia.
The faith planted by St. Thomas will survive, and his name and ministry will remain very closely associated with the life of the Christians in India forever.
Therefore, with great regard for the history of Christianity in India, St. Thomas was declared the Patron of India in 1972 by Pope Paul VI—the 19th century of his martyrdom.