In its recorded history, the Malabar coast in southern India has had trade relations with West Asia since the Old Testament era.
It was these trade routes that later enabled Christianity to reach Kerala through St. Thomas the Apostle, who arrived on the Malabar Coast in AD 52 near the present day township of Kodungallur. He preached the Gospel to the locals (which included Jewish settlers in Kerala), baptized many, ordained priests and founded seven churches.
These seven villages later became epicenters of Indian Christianity and other parishes started evolving from these seven mother parishes. History records that Christianity along the Malabar coast existed under the leadership of a local head titled ‘Archdeacon’.
The Persian Connection
Christianity along the Malabar coast came into contact with the East Syrian Church possibly from the 4th century AD. By the 5th century AD, the Church of Persia had become independent. In AD 486, the Persian Church officially accepted a resolution in its Synod to recognize Nestorius as a Saint and Church Father. However, this decision was not accepted by a minority, who in AD 629 acknowledged the Catholicos at Tagrit in northern Mesopotamia as their spiritual head. There is evidence that in the 8th century, the Indian Church had its Archdeacon known as “The Metropolitan and the Gate of All India”, a title adopted apparently under Islamic influence. As the Church in Persia had a tradition of acknowledging the autonomy of Churches in its communion abroad, the Indian Church continued as an administratively independent community for many centuries.
The Portuguese Period
The Portuguese colonizers who came to India in the 16th century were accompanied by missionaries from Rome. These missionaries and priests were eager to bring the Indian Church into communion with Rome. At the Synod of Diamper held in AD 1599, the assembly of representatives from Malankara was forced to give up the relationship with the Patriarch of Persia and accept the Pope of Rome as the head. However, several years later, the faithful of Malankara revolted against the move, eventually resulting in the famous Coonan Cross Oath of AD 1653, where the Archdeacon and a majority of the local Christian population vouched for the autonomy of the Indian Church. Unfortunately, the Portuguese Padroado succeeded in causing a division in the united church in India and a section of the local Christians pledged allegiance to the Church in Rome.
The Antiochene Connection
Following the adversities of the 16th century, the Archdeacon was declared Metropolitan of the Church by the laying of hands of twelve senior priests. He was given the title ‘Mar Thoma’. Later, when the Christians of Malankara who sought to preserve the Church’s freedom appealed to the various Christian centers of the East for restoring its Episcopal succession, it was the Antiochene Syrian Patriarchate who responded by sending bishop Mar Gregorious of Jerusalem, who arrived in India in AD 1665. Bishop Gregorious confirmed Mar Thoma in his Episcopal rank and both of them worked together to organize and strengthen the church. The tradition of Metropolitans with the title Mar Thoma continued until AD 1816 when Mar Thoma IX was replaced by Mar Dionysious II. The Church in Malankara maintained its autonomy and Episcopal succession intact adhering faithfully to all traditions of Orthodoxy handed down by the early Church Fathers. Under the metropolitans, the Church established systematic education for clergy, taught faith to the laity and instructed its members in the proper celebration of liturgical services, sacraments and spiritual life.
It has to be noted that the association with the Antiochene Patriarch was always intended only for an overall spiritual supervision whilst maintaining harmonious bilateral relationship. There never arouse the intention of a formal submission to the jurisdiction of the Antiochene Patriarchate.
Co-operation with the British Church Missionary Society (CMS).
BY the end of the 18th century, the British colonial forces had politically dominated the entire region. It was during the time of Col. Monroe, who was the British Resident in Kerala, that the Church expressed its interest in establishing a formal center of education with the premier intention of training priests for ministry. Pulikottil Ittoop Ramban, a monk hailing from Kunnamkulam was entrusted with the endeavor. He succeeded in gaining the support and interest of the British Resident as well as the local rulers. It was thus that the Orthodox Theological Seminary at Kottayam (then known as Cottayam College, and today popularly known as Pazhaya/Old Seminary) was founded in AD 1815.
The close co-operation between the Orthodox Church and the CMS of the Anglican Church witnessed a period of growth in terms of a structured Church. Unfortunately, this proved to be fatal as eventually the CMS missionaries tried to inculcate their faith into the Malankara Church. The cooperation was thus called off in AD 1836 causing further rifts within the Church. It was at this point that a minor fraction joined communion with the Anglican Church. Yet another section of people who were influenced by the protestant ideologies of the CMS disowned the liturgy and practices of the Church and tried to bring in reforms. This was followed by almost fifty years of internal conflict, after which the reformists withdrew and organized themselves as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. The majority however vowed to conserve the traditions and liturgical practices of Orthodox faith.
Authority of the Patriarch of Antioch
By the turn of the 19th century, the conflict between the Malankara Church and the Anglican reformists grew serious and violent. It was in this context that the Church appealed to the Antiochene Syrian Patriarch for help to reach an amicable solution. In response, the Antiochene Patriarch Peter III came to Kerala in AD 1875 and headed a synod of church representatives at Mulanthuruthy, which adopted a number of resolutions, including an admission that the church would continue in the communion of the Patriarch and the Syrian Church of Antioch. The litigation in court between the party that favored the reforms and those against it came to an end in AD 1889 with the judgment of the Royal Court of Appeal, the then highest court in Kerala. The judgment ruled against the reformists. The verdict admitted that owing to exercising of an overall spiritual supervision over the Malankara Church since the middle of the 18th century, the Patriarch’s claim to spiritual overseeing was greater than that of the new reformist group.
Although the court verdict served the need of the hour, it later proved to be a longlasting burden for the Malankara Church as Patriarch Peter III gradually sought out to establish himself as the head of Malankara Church in both spiritual as well as temporal matters. His successor, Patriarch Mar Abdullah II who pressed for the same visited Kerala in AD 1909 to establish his authority. This again resulted in a split amongst a section who adhered to Antiochene supremacy and the remaining majority of the Malankara Church who stood firm under the leadership of the Malankara Metropolitan Geevarghese Mar Dionysious VI of Vattasseril.
Establishment of Catholicate in Malankara
In order to preserve the autonomy and to set up a sustainable system, the Church just like its sister churches, decided to establish a Catholicate in India. Meanwhile in Antioch, Mar Abdul Messiah, who succeeded Patriarch Peter III was replaced by Mar Abdullah through a state interference AD 1895. The Canonical Senior Patriarch Abdul Messiah offered to come to the assistance of Malankara Metropolitan Mar Dionysious. Thus he came to Kerala in AD 1912 and on September 15th, at St. Mary’s Church Niranam, established the Catholicate of the East. The Catholicos is an ecclesiastical dignitary, who is equal in rank with the Patriarch, though the latter is considered as first among the equals (primus interparees).
Constitution of the Church Adopted
Under the venerable guidance of the then Malankara Metropolitan Geevarghese Mar Dionysius VI, the Malankara Syrian Christian Association held in AD 1934 adopted a constitution for the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Various amendments have since been made to the Constitution of 1934.
The Church Today
In the history of ancient Christianity, the Churches were independent in their geographical regions, such as the Churches in Galatia, Corinth, Philipia, etc. All Orthodox churches are autonomous and are known by their national identity. This is the case with both the Eastern Orthodox Churches such as the Russian Orthodox Church and Rumanian Orthodox as well as all Oriental Orthodox Churches.
The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, popularly also known as the Indian Orthodox Church is a prominent member of the family of Oriental Orthodox Churches. The autocephalous Indian Orthodox Church is today headed by the Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan His Holiness Moran Mar Baselios Mar Thoma Paulose II, who is the head of all spiritual and temporal matters. He is also the head of the Holy Synod which is the council of bishops.
The official name of the Church – Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church – can be explained as: ‘Malankara’ is another name for Kerala, ‘Orthodox’ is the category of Christian faith and tradition it follows (distinguishes it from the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths), and ‘Syrian’ comes from the Syriac language which was the liturgical language of the Church, inherited from the close proximity with the ancient Persian Church at least from the fourth century onwards. The Indian Orthodox Church follows the ancient West Syrian Liturgical Rite.
The faith of the Church is that which was established by the three Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (A.D. 325), Constantinople (A.D. 381) and Ephesus (A.D. 431). The Indian Orthodox Church is in communion with the other Oriental Orthodox Churches namely, Antiochene, Coptic, Armenian, Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches. The Indian Orthodox Church also maintains cordial ecumenical relationships with the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Churches.
Although a majority of the members of the Indian Orthodox Church today reside in the state of Kerala in South West India, there are parishes spread across various parts of the globe. For administrative efficiency, the Church is divided into 30 ecclesial units called dioceses, each of which are administratively and spiritually headed by a respective Diocesan Bishop. The Council of bishops, known as the Holy Synod is headed by the Holy Catholicos, who is the supreme spiritual head of the Church.