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From Muziris, Thomas worked among Jewish communities that, according to some scholars, had flourished along the Periyar River since the seventh century B.C. He also preached the Gospel to Hindus of all castes, some of whom embraced the faith while others adapted his teachings but remained Hindu. Over two decades, he founded churches in Azhikode, Kollom, Niranam, Chayal, Kokkamangalam, Kottakkavu and Palayur. Thomas also erected crosses near Mount Malayattur and Thiruvithancode, which locals today call “half churches.”

Culled from the communities he founded, Thomas ordained priests and deacons to minister to their spiritual and temporal needs. Eventually, the heirs of St. Thomas became dependent on the Church of the East — an Eastern Syriac church founded by Thomas and centered in the Persian Empire. The catholicos-patriarch of the Church of the East regularly sent bishops to southern India to ordain priests and deacons and regulate ecclesial life.

For more than 1,500 years, India’s Thomas Christians were fully integrated into Indian society. Their liturgical practices reflected their Eastern Syriac ties. Other elements of this tradition — such as the architecture of their churches and their way of remembering the dead — revealed their Hindu cultural heritage.

The arrival of the Portuguese at the close of the 15th century, however, dramatically changed the lives of all Indians. When Vasco da Gama staked his claim for his Catholic king, he found not only tea and spices, but a Christian community that joyfully welcomed the Portuguese as companions in the faith. Sadly, the advent of the Europeans triggered the beginning of division among the sons and daughters of Thomas — who now number more than ten million. Their common Christian faith and their devotion to the doubting apostle bind them ever still.

Sean Sprague is a regular contributor to these pages.

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