2000 Years of India's Christianity from the Apostle Thomas' Missionary Work
Thomas, or Didymus (Greek for twin), should not just be remembered for being the doubting one, when he did not believe that Jesus had rose from the dead until he touched the wounds, but one who earlier was the only one willing to go to Jerusalem to die with him. He finally met his martyr's end in India, but not before he left a church behind. Tradition lives on in this one of 37 Apostolic churches, this one derived from the work of this disciple of Jesus Christ in the Malankara, or Indian Orthodox Church. The Church father Eusebius quotes another before him, Origen, relaying that Thomas drew this mission -- Parthia (or India) - upon the Apostles' drawing lots for their scattering assignments. This Church is considered one of the Syrian Churches in a group that is closely related to Churches in Persia and also part of the Eastern Orthodox family. Most of the corroborating information that gives us a profile of this Apostolic remnant is from writings, hymns, and archeological evidence (Roman and Parthian coins). Support for the idea of Thomas first spreading the gospel in this area comes from local legends and terms, like Mar Thoma Nazaranis, as Christians are called in Malabar. Historians had to sift through the revisionist tendancies of competing philosophies, that developed since the seventh century. Skepticism abounds to whether Thomas went to just Taxila, Mailapur, or Malabar or combinations therof, but the case is laid to rest that he did come to this subcontinent.
The Post-Scriptural Acts of Thomas
Hit the Beaches!
Just like Jewish proselytizers earlier, and Islamic settlers later, Thomas landed at the convenient harbor at Kodungallur, (or Cranganore or Mahadevapattananm) in Kerala. One can visit, today, the estuary where the river Peryar meets the sea at Azhicode and the little shrine where Thomas' right arm rests (the Ortona Relics). The first century Jewish colonies known to exist in Kerala may have invited Thomas to come and speak of this Messiah, the Suffering Servant, but additionally the King of Kings. The excavated coins found in Kharoshthi were embossed with the name of the ruler Thomas visited, Gudnaphar (or Gondopharnes Gondophares, Godapharna, Undopheros, Undopherros). This discovery made real a name that was only known as mentioned in Apocryphal writings as the king that Thomas visited. The area was overrun first by Persians, then Greeks, then the Sakas, and then a little into the first century this Parthian king was the victor. It is reported that Thomas founded a total of seven churches.
After a trip to the aforementioned King Gondophares in the north he went south to the kingdom of Mazdei to the court of the Kushan dynasty's King Vasudeva. Like many who failed to see how a king would suffer and die for the sins of the world, he had Thomas executed by impaling. Today, one can visit the tomb of the Apostle Thomas at Mylapore in Tamilnadu.
Turmoil and Testing
After years of Muslim insurgence, (whose followers sometimes can be actually quite tolerant of other religions), some Hindu hostility, (where occasionally the 'add another god' syncretism was perhaps challenged), and various splintering schisms, (which has additionally happened all over the world), this Church had to next endure the Portugese trying to impose on them a Roman version (just doing what comes naturally to conquistadors). Fortunately in a few later years they were able to remain autonomous even after the English colonists offered an Anglican 'reformation' to their uniquely eastern flavored Christianity.
A History of Christianity, Kenneth Scott Latourette: Harper and Row, NY (1973)