SYRIAN CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS
D.N.Jha | 03 Apr 2008
There were mainly three trade routes in existence connecting India with the Middle Eastern & Western world. These routes were in existence centuries before St.Thomas traversed the Eastern Lands. They were used to a considerable extent by the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Arabs, the Greeks, the Romans and the Egyptians.
The first among these routes was the Persian Gulf route, connecting the mouth of the Indus to the Euphrates, to places like Antioch and the Levant ports. The cuneiform inscriptions of the Hittite Kings of Mittani in Cappadocia show the use of this trade route in 14th century BC. Logs of Indian teak wood have been found in the temple of the Moon at Muggier (the Ur of Chaldees) and in the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar, both in the 6th century BC. It is well known that trades in teak, ebony, sandal wood, rosewood, cotton, etc. were flourishing between India and the rest of the world through these routes. By 694 BC the Assyrians monopolized this route. About 606 BC the Assyrians were overthrown and the Babylonians took the place of Nineveh, the city known for trade as Queen of West Asia. In the crowded market place of that great city met all the races of the world including Indians.
The second route known as "Silk Route" was by land through the Khyber and Bolan passes in India to Balk and from
Balk either by river down the Oxus to the Caspian and from the Caspian to the Euxine or entirely by land by the Caravan route to Antioch. Since the land route through Hindu Kush Mountains to the Mediterranean ports was long and dangerous, commerce between India and other parts was carried on mostly by sea.
The third route from the mouth of the Red Sea to India, up the Arabian coast was the most important route; immense quantities of gold, ivory, silver and precious stones were shipped from Ophir and also from India to the West. These changed hands at Balkh, Aden and other places on barter basis on their way to ultimate destinations in European and other markets.
During the Persian period, Darius advanced upon India from Baktra (modern Balkh in Afghanistan) and reached the town of Kasyapura, a frontier city of Gandhara (comprising the modern districts of Peshawar and Rawalpindi). Darius was the first Greek to visit India and was also the first to make the Red Sea voyage. He made the Indus valley the 20th Satraphy (Province of a governor) of the Persian Empire. The Kharosti Script introduced as the official script in the Persian documents remained in use in the Northwest Frontier of India till AD 4.
In B C 327 Alexander the Great entered the Punjab (modern West Pakistan and the Indian Territory of East Punjab) through the Frontier passes of Khyber and Bolan. He opened trade depots all along the river Indus. Megasthenes the Greek traveller came to Pataliputra (Patna) by using these routes. Later the Mauryan Empire under Ashoka was responsible to develop and link various places in North India by constructing roads, canals etc. In the first century before and after Christ the land and sea-routes fell into Roman hands. Pearls, pepper and other spices were carried from India to the Roman markets. In the year A.D. 45 Hippalus discovered the
monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean (Southwest monsoon). A ship from the mouth of the Red Sea to Musiris (other names: Muchiry, Kodungaloor, Cranganore, Maliankara etc ), took 40 days to reach the Malabar Coast. What is recorded in pages 46-47 of Cochin State Manual is reproduced below: "An extensive traffic sprang up in very early times between Mediterranean cities and the ports of Kerala. The Phoenicians were the first to make their way to these ports and came by way of the Persian Gulf and afterwards by the Red Sea. South India derived the Vattezhuthu alphabets from the Phoenicians. They were followed by the Jews in the reign of Solomon who had at sea a navy of Tarshish with the navy of Hiram. Once in three years came the navy of Tarshish bringing gold and silver, ivory, apes and peacocks. The striking similarities between the Hebrew and Tamil words for apes and peacocks indicate that these articles were obtained from Kerala. Ophir from which Solomon got his gold is identical with Beypore. After the Jews came the Syrians under the Seleucids and the Egyptians under Ptolemies, both of whom maintained direct trade with the Malabar ports". In BC 30 the Romans succeeded them by establishing a lucrative trade route with India. They took big quantity of pepper, ivory, pearl and silk in exchange of copper, brass, tin, lead etc. AnnexureA shows the historical developments from 4000BC.
The land of the Parthians, the Hyrcanians and the Bactrians were roughly the territory now occupied by the Persians, the Arabs and the Afghans. Mar Solomon who became the Metropolitan of Perath-Maishan (Modern Basra) in A.D. 1222 wrote "He (St. Thomas), taught the Parthians, the Medas and the Indians".
SYRIAN CHRISTIAN’S TRADITIONAL BELIEFS
The Syrian Christian Tradition is that St. Thomas first visited Gondophares in North India along with a Jewish merchant Habban, from the commercial centre of Alexandria in AD 48 and then travelled to Southern India in A.D. 52 from Socotra in the Persian Gulf to Kodungalure by ship possibly after his return from North India. Bardaisan of Edessa who lived during AD 154 to 222 had written a book titled ‘Acts of Thuma’, in Syriac, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Ethiopian, Arabic and in a fragmentary form in Coptic. The Syrian version is regarded as the original one; it is perhaps the oldest book where reference to St. Thomas mission is mentioned in detail. The identity of ‘Gudnaphor’, or Gondophares and his brother Gad that had never found a place in the Indian History, is now established beyond doubt when the inscriptions and coins during his period were unearthed in North Western India in recent times. The Malankara Syrian Christians by tradition however knew the mission of St. Thomas in North India. The Christian population there however due to persecution and invasion by other kingdoms migrated to the Middle East countries. It is believed that some of those Christians finally landed in Malankara along with Bishop David from Syria in A.D. 340. However at present there seems no trace of Christianity in North India from the conversion made by St. Thomas.
It is unfortunate that the Malankara Nazaranis kept no authentic record of their past tradition or whatever little was preserved were plundered and destroyed by the foreign invaders like the Portuguese.The documents removed by the Portuguese about the Syrian Christians were also destroyed as a result of the big fire in the Lisbon library. The only way to establish the true origin of Syrian Christians is therefore to connect the oral
traditions existing in ancient families, the copper plate grants of
rulers, older churches in Kerala and also fragments of history by foreign authors about the Malankara Christians. An extract of the Cochin State Manual (pages 52-53), by Mr. C. Achuta Menon first published in A.D. 1911, is reproduced below: - "In the first centuries of Christian era,a number of Jews immigrated into Kerala and settled in that portion of it which afterwards became the Kingdom of Cochin and Christianity also made its way in to the country about the same time…steadily grown in prosperity and importance so much so that the local Kings by charters engraved in copper plates constituted them self governing communities. By these charters Joseph Rabban was made the hereditary chief of the Jews and Irvi Cottan that of the Christians and they were also given powers and privileges of Naduvazhi chiefs. Most of the privileges mentioned in the Jews deed are identical with those enumerated in the grant to the Christians but the latter were also given the right of "the Curved Sword", that is the right of carrying arms which was not granted to the Jews…". The copper plate grant to Irvi Cottan will be dealt with in a Next article.
To be continued...