Early Christianity in India

When the new Miss America was crowned, I really didn’t think anything more about it than I normally would. However, I don’t think anyone could ignore the religious and cultural debates that followed. As a scholar of religion, what fascinated me the most were people’s assumptions (usually more wrong than right) about the faith life of India. Statistically, India’s religious adherents roughly break down to about 80% Hindu, 13% Muslim, 3% Christian, and 4% other (including Jainism and Buddhism). Although, I could talk about religion in India for weeks, I’ll reign my enthusiasm in to just Indian Christians and share as many beautiful photos of religious life as I can.

3% may not seem like a lot (especially in comparison to the almost 80% of American Christian adherents), but if the current population of India is about 1.237 billion that means there are currently over 37 million Christians (and growing). To give the number perspective, that is about the same number as Argentina (who have almost 93% Christians). Or, just about more than Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, and Ireland…combined.

A lot of complexities and the current religious turmoil could be talked about on just those numbers, but there is an exceptionally long history of Christianity in India that many people do not know about.

Church of St. Cajetan

My perception is that a large number of people assume that Christianity was first introduced to the country, like many other non-European countries, with military force and oppression. I am not saying that did not happen eventually. It most obviously and certainly did. But very few people seem to realize that India was actually one of the first countries in the world to have Christian adherents.

Although the exact date of the arrival of Christianity is debated among historians, there is no doubt that Christianity established itself in India at least within the first few centuries after the death of Christ. Archeological findings have discovered Roman coins in both north and south India, as well as the remains of a church in the east dating from about the 2nd century. The “Thomas Christians,” who still exist in the country today, claim to be descendants of the Apostle Thomas who arrived in about A.D. 52 (probably somewhere in the southwest region) and was martyred in about A.D. 69 in Mylapore (near Chennai/Madras). In fact, one of the oldest missionary works that the church has is found in the Acts of Thomas, which recounts the missionary work and eventual death of Judas Thomas (or “Judas the Twin”) to India.

This new church replaced the original, believed to have been consecrated by St. Thomas Apostle. The present structure is the fourth building erected at the site, the third having been built in the 14th century.

Fascinatingly, the Christian community continued to exist and thrive for centuries before the first European explorers touched India’s shores in the 15th century. One document, written by Nicolo Conti some time between 1415-1439, references not only the existence and prevalence of a Christian community, but also his eventual visitation to the tomb of St. Thomas.

Entrance to national shrine of St.Thomas Basilica. This Basilica is believed to have been built over the tomb of Thomas.

Unfortunately, the Latin West eventually perceived the Orthodox community as heretical and tried to force conversion to the Roman Catholic faith. After centuries of power struggles, battles, misunderstanding, colonialism, and so much more, the Thomas Christians that remain today have been split into different factions. Nevertheless, they still exist after almost two thousand years in the country, among a now diverse a thriving array of Christian denominations.

If you would like to know more, there are not only websites to visit, but expert scholars like: Robert Frykenberg, Leslie Brown, K.L. Anantakrishna Ayyar, and A. Mathias Mundadan, that can provide much more in-depth analysis and history.