The exact date of the arrival of Christianity to India cannot be established with certainty. It is commonly believed that Christianity was introduced in India with the arrival of St. Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ, at the Malabar Coast in Kerala in 52 A.D. Others contend that the first missionary to arrive in the country was Saint Bartholomew. The activities of the Christian missionaries started in India way back in 1544 A.D. with the arrival of Saint Francis Xavier, who was followed by other missionaries from Great Britain, Germany, Portugal, Denmark and Holland throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries. With the advent of the British rule in India, Christianity began to expand significantly in India and the faith was eventually rooted deeply in different parts of India.
Christians in India number about 30 million and comprise 2.34% of the Indian population. They are concentrated in the north-eastern states of India, Kerala and other states in southern India. Today, there are over 23 dioceses in India, with eleven of them being located in Kerala.
The Christians belonging to the Syrian Church are found in South India and claim an apostolic foundation for their Church. They believe that Christianity was introduced in India by Saint Thomas, who established seven Christian communities or churches in Kerala at Cranganore, Palayoor, Kokkamangalam, Paravur (Kottakavu), Malayattoor, Chayal (Nilackal), Niranam and Kollam (Quilon). He was followed by Thomas Cananaus and others, who arrived on the Malabar Coast in 345 A.D. from Persia.
The 6th century text ‘Christian Topography’ written by an Alexandrian merchant Cosmas Indicopleustes provides the earliest historical evidence on the existence of a Church in South India. Persian crosses (“Thomas Crosses”) discovered in Chennai and Kottayam point towards the existence of a link between the Malabar Church and the Church in Persia. This church eventually came to be known as the ‘East Syrian’ or ‘Nestorian Church’ and was visited by Marco Polo in 1293 A.D.
The Malabar Church renounced the authority of the Pope and declared its independence in 1653 A.D. after initially paying obedience to the Roman Church under the influence of Alexio de Menezes, the Archbishop of Goa in 1599 A.D. This is described as the ‘Coonen Cross Declaration’, which took place in Mattencherry and led to the splitting of the Christian communities into several groups – East Syrian Catholics, West Syrian Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Jacobite Syrian Orthodox, Marthoma, Church of the East and the Latin Church. Pope Leo XIII issued the bull of “Quod Jam Pridem” in 1887, which freed the Syrian Christians from the jurisdiction of the Latin prelate of Verapoly and placed them under two Eparchies – one in Kottayam and the other in Trichur in Kerala. A papal declaration made in January, 1993 again upgraded Ernakulam to major Arch Episcopal Church with the title of ‘Ernakulam Angamaly’.
Roman Catholic Church:
The arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in 1498 is a landmark event in the history of Christianity in India. The visits of Roman Catholic Missions to India became more organised with the arrival of the Portuguese to India and these were initially focussed on Goa, Cochin, Tuticorin and other coastal areas. The first Jesuit missionary to arrive in India was St. Francis Xavier (1506-52), who was followed by Robert de Nobili (1577-1656) and others. Christianity was spread in the 16th and the 17th centuries under the auspices of the ‘Society of Jesus’. After the retreat of the Portuguese from India, many other missionaries like the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and the Carmelites began their visits. The Franciscans were the first to arrive in India in 1517 and they chose Dom John de Albuquerque (1537-53) as the first bishop of Goa. Pope Paul IV declared Goa an archdiocese in 1557 with its supremacy extending from the Cape of Good Hope to China, and all Christians, including the East Syrian Church were brought under its jurisdiction.
The German Lutherans were the first Protestant missionaries to come to India in 1706 A.D. at Tranquebar, near Thiruchirapalli, under the protection of the King of Denmark. By the 19th century several other missions were established in different parts of South India.
North Indian Church:
The origin of Christianity in North India is a matter of speculation. While some consider that Saint Thomas had travelled to North India and introduced Christianity, others believe that this religion was brought in by merchants from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. The existence of Christian kingdoms in Central India towards the end of 13th century was described by Marco Polo. The Portuguese encouraged the visits of several Jesuit missions to the Mughal courts during the 16th-18th centuries from the time of Akbar to that of Aurangzeb. Such visits declined with the diminishing influence of the Portuguese in India.
The renowned English Baptist missionary, William Carey (1761-1834) arrived in India in 1793 and began his pioneering work of translating the Bible into several Indian languages including Bengali and Sanskrit, as well as promoting primary education, which had deep impact in Bengal and other parts of India. The passing of the Charter Acts by the British Parliament in 1813 and 1833 encouraged several missionaries to visit India, which include John Fountain, William Ward, Joshua Marshman, David Brunsdon and William Grant. These missionaries were instrumental in setting up of several educational institutions in India.