Sunday, February 3, 2013

Historical Validity of St Thomas tradition ( 5 ) B

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Malabar-mission of Saint Thomas: counter-arguments to the criticism of historians:

 Now let me present my explanations and counter arguments  to the objections raised by a section of  Kerala (Indian ) historians, against the historical validity of St.Thomas tradition -- those points, not included in the general explanation.
Who were the first converts of Apostle Thomas ? 
The first question is,who were the first people from Malabar, said to have been converted to Christianity, by St. Thomas, in the first century, A D.?   According to centuries’ old  Nazrani tradition and descriptions in the folklores like, Rampanpaattu (Thomaparvam), it is from Nambudiri Brahmin community. There were writers, who point out some Brahmin customs, rites and traditions prevailing among the Nazranis,  in support of this belief.. For example, secular historian, Nagam Aiya, author of ‘Travancore State Manuel’ says,  “There is no doubt as to the tradition that St. Thomas came to Malabar and converted a few families of Nambudiris, ……..  For, in consonance with this long- standing traditional belief in the minds of the people of the Apostle’s mission and labors  among high caste Hindu, we have it before us today the fact that certain Syrian Christian women particularly of a Desom called Kunnamkulom,wear clothes as Nambudiri women do, and will not marry, except perhaps in exceptional cases and but from among dignified families of similar aristocratic descent” ( T S M II / 122—123 ).( similar statements can be seen,in the book of L.K. Anantha Krishna Ayyar: Anthropology of Syrian Christians, p.122-131 ) . Besides,it is pointed out by  eminent historians, like Francis Day, Placid Podipara, etc. that, both Brahmins and the St.Thomas Christians have the patriarchal family system, while the matriarchal one was the widely prevalent in ancient Kerala. Rites of initiation like jathakarmam, annaprasanam, pulakuli  are common to both.  Remember, the native Christians, were prohibited from performing these ‘heathen practices’,upon pain of excommunication during the unauthorized, ‘Synod of Diamper’, called by Portuguese Latin  Archbishop, Menezis in 1599, through special enactments. ( See  Synod Decree No. XI ).( Church historians like Joseph Kolengaden, Z. M Paret, etc. give extensive reference about practices and customs , identical to Nambudiris and Nazranis.( See  ‘Malankara Nasranikal’ p.193-198 ).
But in the modern era, the theory of Nabudiri- origin, has been questioned by some  secular historians, on the ground that there is no evidence to establish the presence of  Arya-Brahmins in the first century Malabar. Instead, Kerala was inhabited by Dravidians only.
According to eminent historian, and former Chairman of ICHR, Dr. M.G.S Narayanan., the theory of Brahminical-origin of first century-Christianity, is not historically tenable, particularly as per the research findings of  Prof. Elamkulam P.N. Kunjan Pillai, about the early Nambudiri-Brahmin settlements in Kerala.For this,he claims  he has the in principle support of Some other historians like Kesavan Veluthat, Rajan Gurukkal, also. Referring to the first Nambudiri settlements in Kerala, M G S says “ It is evident that these prominent temple-centered Brahmin settlements of Kerala, counted among the 32 original settlements, were established only by 8th century A.D., at the earliest, when we consider this concrete evidence” ( Nambudiris: Migrations and Early Settlements in Kerala, p.85 , L R C publication. ).  According to him,this is  one positive out come of the newly discovered sources and findings of Elamkulam,, “ MGS added that,"The vested interests of communities and groups have been responsible for the persistence of certain traditions, like the myths of Parasurama, St.Thomas.Ceraman Perumal etc”  ( Ibid p.82). In fact, this argument is not without critics. For example,  eminent historian, Dr. Rajan Gurukkal is not fully in agreement with this view-point.He has disputed MGS's arguments to a great extent. According to him,the presence of Brahmins in Kerala,might go back to the closing centuries of the first millennium B C . In his own words :
Though the term Nampudiri is not very old, as the real name is Malayala Brahmanan, the presence of brahmins in Kerala will go back to the closing of first millennium B C. If we can relay on the tentative chronology available today for ancient Tamil poems, the antiquity of Brahmans can be pushed to 2nd century B C, if not a little earlier. Dr. Gurukkal quote the mention of Chellur in an Akam poem by a singer called Mamulanar of about 2nd century B C,  as an age old seat of Vedic ritual, points to the possible existence of Brahmin house-holds in some centers in Kerala. (Dr.Gurukkal, in St.Thomas Christians and Nambudiri Barahmins : a note, p.108, ed. Bosco Puthur ). The rational explanation of another veteran Kerala historian, Mr.A. Sreedhara Menon, about the first  converts of Saint Thomas, is as follows: the stand of William Logan ( and the present day historians like Elamkulam and MGs) that  large-scale exodus of Brahmins from from southern Karnataka, happened, by 8th century CE, may be correct. But he reiterates that, "there are evidences  in Tamil Sangam literature to the effect that Brahmin influence in Kerala society goes back to the early centuries of CE".(A.Sreedhara Menon : Kerala Charithram (Mal.), p.128.).
Arguments in support of Jewish origin :

 The assumption of a section of the historians that the early conversion St.Thomas was from Jewish diaspora, is also not tallying with the Nazrani tradition and history. According to Kerala Jewish historian S.S.Koder,it was after the destruction of of 2nd Jerusalem temple, in 3828 ( 68 A.D. ) that about 10,000 Jews migrated to Kerala coast, and settled in places like Kodungalloor, Paalayoor, Maala, and Pullur. As per Nazrani tradition, it was in 52,AD. There are references, to the effect that, in 2nd century, A.D., a Roman trader, during his voyage to Malabar coast, via Red Sea, reported to have visited a Jewish colony at Kodungalloor ( Muziris ), in Kerala ( Ref. History of Jews in Kerala. ). At the same time the opinion of Neill, " all that we can say is that the tapestry of India's religious life may have been enriched before the beginning of Christian Era, by the presence of a number of Jews, and of a  religion,  very different in character from those of Indian origin ", is a rational conclusion. ( Neill, History of Christianity in India, p.24 ). In the opinion of Francis Day, for the conversion, from Jewish diaspora is definite ( See description in the previous article ).

In this context, the relevent question is, can we consider the above statement of Prof. Elamkulam  (and Dr.M.G.S.Narayanan), about the origin of Nambudiris in Kerala, as a  settled conclusion or dogma, so far as historical research is concerned ? Let us discuss the matter in a bit more detail, since the latest Pattanam excavation results proved , beyond doubts that there were hectic trade between this port and the Mediteranean  (and other ) countries, right from 500 B.C. This provides sufficient authority and reliability to the St.Thomas tradition, as a historical probability. 
How Pattanam excavation, vindicates the tradition of St.Thomas Christians ?
According to eminent historian and  J N U Professor, Dr.Pius Malekandathil, two important happenings, in the recent past, in the field of history, viz. the Discovery of Vienna Papyrus (1985) and Archaeological excavation  at PATTANAM / MUZIRIS, in historical research, revolutionised the so called 'settled' conclusions and disproved  the arguments against  the St.Thomas Tradition. In fact the excavation result is  a great blow to the prejudicial and dogmatic approach of some historians of eminence, from Kerala. In his own words:                                         
Recent researches ( by implication, Pattanam excavation ), provided historical sanctity to the tradition about the arrival of St.Thomas, and the trade relation between coastal Western India and Red Sea ports on the one hand and coastal Western India and the  ports of Persian Gulf on the other. The physical presence of about 6 million St.Thomas Christians, claiming their origin to one or another place of the 7 initial Christian settlements, set up by St.Thomas, as per their tradition, often serves as ethno-historical evidence, adding significantly to the historical claim of their oral tradition. From 3rd century on wards  the written sources from West Asia and the Mediterranean world started mentioning about the Christians of India and the Apostle, who had preached among Indians….
At a time when 120 vessels were playing between coastal Western India and ports of Roman Egypt every year, there is no reason, whatsoever, to doubt about the veracity of  their accounts. (  From his Seminar paper ‘A commonwealth  of Christians in Indian Ocean’,p.8 )
Referring to the  discovery,  ‘Vienna Papyrus’, ( a voluminous trade agreement  entered between a  seller in Muziris and a buyer in Alexandria, for regular supply of merchandise ), Dr. Pius says, this together with Muziris findings, provided historical status to the coming of Pantaenus to India ( "to preach Christ to Brahmins and Philosophers"), as reported by Eusebius and Jerome. Also, without any ambiguity we can conclude  that the part of the world, he visited, is our India, the scholarly conclusion reached  by eminent historian William Logan, 100 years back. ( See detailed discussion of the topic, in article # 3 of this series.). These archaeological and epigraphic evidences give sanctity and historical status to the descriptions of Eusebius and Jerome , not only about the visit of Pantaenus, but also to the mission of St.Thomas  and the tradition about the first people converted  by the Apostle.
Remember, the visit of Pantaenus, is a subject of reference by another Church historian, Clement of Alexandria ( 150 –215, A D. ), too. He provides some more details about the people he visited., by saying, ‘the philosophers and gymnosophists’, with whom Pantaenus came into contact, and mentions Brahmanas  and “ Sarmana who are also called Hylobii ; and neither inhibit shave roofs over their heads , and know not marriage and begetting of children”, referring no doubt to  Bramanas in India, in the second century A D. On the other hand, no doubt penetrated to Parthia; and it was probably in the valley of Indus that Pantaenus went. ( See, Madras Dist. Gazetteers—Syrian Christians ---C. A.Innes I C S,( 1915 ), Vol. I / Ch. III / 301 ). 

Reply to M G S Narayanan and others
In the preceding paragraphs we have seen how two important incidents in the recent past viz. 1 ) discovery of  Vienna Papyrus  ( 1985 ) and 2 ) Pattanam ( Muziris ) research findings, are capable of disproving  the  assertion of  historians like M.G.S.Narayanan, that the origin of Nambudiries and the visit of St.Thomas, to Kodungalloor, as a sheer myths.
 Though, most of the main-stream historians from Kerala, toe the line of thinking of Prof. Elamkulam ( and MGS ), there are historians who totally disagree with the dogmatic approach about the origin of  Malayala Bramanan  മലയാള ബ്രാഹ്മണന്‍  ) (Nambudiri). For them, contrary to the conclusion of  Elamkulam,there were migrations of Brahmins from  North-West India, to Kerala coast, was long before 8th C, A D.
According to veteran Sanskrit-scholar and historian, Arthrassery Agnisarman Namboothiripad, the  Malayala Brahmanan ( that is the original name for Nambudiri ), has a history of 5000 years. After years’ long study of  Vattezhuthu,( Tamil ) inscriptions, (numbering 17), in the Thrikkakara Temple, one of the oldest temples in Kerala, well-known epigraphy scholar, V.R.Parameswara Pillai and writer, V.T.Induchudan, opined that, the Thrikkakara temple was built, some time in 2500 BC.(Though the theme of the Thrikkakara inscription is, different, it contains information about the establishment of the temple at Thrikkakara., also.). If at all  there is any element truth in it, the temple was consecrated   by a Nambudiri - priest only.  Another inscription, in the same temple, dating the reign of King, Kulasekhara, headquartered at Mahodayapuram. ( See, Mahakshethrangalude Mumbil, by Nalankal Krishna Pillai, p.660 ).
The recent excavation at Pattanam / Muziris , ( explained in the preceding paragraph ),  too is capable of proving that the conclusions of  MGS, about the first Nambudiri- settlements , on the sole strength of Elamkulam’s research, are not the ‘last words’ for historians..
Yet another evidence to negate the arguments of ProfElamkulam  and MGS , is the out come of the Scientific research conducted by DrRajan Chungath, a social anthropologist with the help of Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Trivandrum.It has been proved, beyond doubt that, a piece of wood  obtained from Vemanjeri Mana ( an old Nambuthiri household, in North Kerala ), belongs to late 5th century, A D or earliar. ( The wood was subjected to Radio Carbon testing by Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow. ). As we know, the old Vemenjeri Mana, trace it’s roots, to the Mezhathol Agnihothri Nambuthiripadu, eldest of the 12 children, in the legend of Parayipetta Panthiru Kulam. ( Ref: report about the research, in Times Of India, Kochi dated 24th  July,2012. )
On the basis of the facts enlisted here, especially the collateral  evidences obtained from the recent excavation, at Pattanam, historians cannot but accept the veracity  of the points,

        1 )  Pantaenus, visited India in 180 A D and it was our India
        2 )  A flourishing  Christian community , existed here ,in the first centuries. and,
        3 )  there were Nambudiri Brahmins, in Kerala, during the period under reference.

    In this context, it is illogical and uncharitable, on the part of Dr. M G S Narayanan, in  branding St.Thomas tradition of  Kerala / India , as a myth,as good as Parasurama .
By doing so, he is treating a  mythological hero and a historical character, in the same plain. If he says that there is no archaeological evidence from Kerala, to support the mission of apostle Thomas in  Malabar, it is understandable, to a certain extent. Further, even if it is established, beyond doubt ,that  there was no Brahmins in Kerala, in the first century , the next logical conclusion must be, the people said to have  been evangelized by St.Thomas, in the first century, A D , belongs to some other (viz. Dravidian / Jewish ) communities. Instead of doing so, out of his over enthusiasm, he come forward, to brand  it as a myth !. This is illogical and irrational.
Also, M G S claims that, his conclusion is in tune with the stand of Prof. Elamkulam, by implication, Elamkulam said some thing against the visit of St. Thomas. This is not correct. The following statement from Elamkulam will prove the fallacy of this claim:
It reads as under: Prof.Elamkulam P.N.Kunjan pillai,who has done extensive research in Kerala history, , is,  however, inclined to respect, the tradition ( St. Thomas ) as being worthy of acceptance.( See, Trichur District Gazetteer ( History ), Ch. II / p.100. )
This means, though Elamkulam , who has done extensive researches about the first Namboodiri settlements and reached in a definite conclusion, has never made an assertion, either  “ St.Thomas tradition of Malabar is a myth, or St.Thomas had never made a visit to India”,as claimed by MGS.
At the same time, the doubts made by MGS and Rajan Gurukkal, against the traditional belief that, Apostle Thomas, built seven churches, as apart of his Missionary work, are genuine.Since  building churches of the present model, was started ,even in the Middle East or Europe ,in the later centuries only, there is an element of exaggeration in it..Here,  it need be taken in the figurative sense only, ie.  churches means, Christian settlements.

Pope’s reference about St.Thomas:
Yet another serious argument, leveled against (by, Dr.Rajan Gurukkal), is that: ‘even Pope is said against a personal visit of Apostle Thomas, to Southern India / Kerala ( Malabar )’.( This argument seems to be out of a misconception about the statement made by the pontiff, in the recent past.).
In his weekly lecture on Apostles of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI  made the following ( controversial ) reference about St.Thomas,  “ In his name then written  The Acts and; Gospel of Thomas,  both apocryphal , still important for ‘ study of Christian origins’. Thomas first evangelized Syria and Persia and then penetrated, as far as Western India, from where Christianity reached also South India”. First of all, it was a statement, referring to the North Indian tradition about St.Thomas, with special reference to Gnostic/ apocryphal works. Despite this fact, the statement looks a bit ambiguous, and negative, capable of confusing innocent readers, due to the following reasons: 1 )  Western India , mentioned by the Pontiff, is now, in Pakistan, not in India  2 )  At the same time, South India, or Malabar, not included in the list of places christened  by the Apostle himself ,and 3) there is an implication  that South India was  not evangelized by  St.Thomas, but somebody else. If this statement is taken in the literal sense, St.Thomas can hardly be called ‘ Apostle of India’.
The furor over the statement of the Pope, from Kerala ( India ) and elsewhere, and the subsequent correction made by the Vatican, ( with the addition of the sentence, ‘ from where Christianity reached also South India’ ) may be evaluated in this special context only.
Here, Dr.Rajan Gurukkal, as a secular historian, before making a hasty conclusion, should realize the following points:
             1There is no authority for a Pope, to make a ruling on an issue which is the prerogative of the historian. .
2 ) Moreover , it is illogical to count it  as a statement with authority ,rather than a casual statement. .
In my personal opinion, whatever be the intention of the Pontiff, he should not have made such a statement., which seems to have a negative sense, for statements of persons in high office, Prime Minister of India or Pope, that are primarily,  personal, political or pastoral opinions, may be mistaken as official, at least by many pious Catholics. In a secular point of view, since it is about ‘historical Thomas’, no one has ‘infallibility’ to give ruling about this.
But the under noted statement by Pope Benedict, in the past, will be helpful for understanding his real intention in the matter.
“ ….The Chaldean liturgical family, goes back to Apostle Thomas and to Addai and Mari, disciples of Apostles . There is no doubt that it has preserved very ancient traditions and the tradition that The Apostle Thomas was a missionary in India definitely has to be taken seriously at the historical level” ( The Spirit of liturgy—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger- p. 161 and 162 ) .
 Dispute about the age of  Rambanpattu ( Thomaparvam ) and other ballads :
As mentioned in the beginning of this series, the objections raised by secular historians, against the antiquity of  the Folklore, Rambanpattu, and authenticity of it’s elaborate description about the Indian ( Malabar ) mission of St.Thomas are reasonable and logical.Examining the type of language ( Malayalam ), used for the available copy of this ancient song, literary scholars like Vallathol Narayana Menon, Chummar Choondal opined that it has a comparatively recent origin, say 15th century, however it looks unique and a replica of local tradition of Malabar embedded in.
As per one version,even though the previous copy of the Ballad, in prose, was written by  Thomas Ramban, Maliekkal, a disciple of Apostle Thomas ( ? ), the present copy ( 1601 )  ( as a lyrical ballad ), was ( re ) written version by another Ramban  with the same name     ( of 48th generation, of Maliekkal family ), for the use of Niranam church.  ( See Barnard Thoma, p.78—79.) Dr. P.J.Thomas ,confirmed that even today, we can see a family property in the name of Maliekkal family , in Niranam . ( See,  Malayala Sahithyavum Kristhyanikalum,p.61 ). Though authors’ name , is mentioned in the Song itself, as Thomas Ramban, he may possibly be compiler of the centuries old oral tradition, about St.Thomas, circulated among the people ; in the present, manuscript form., and not the first author. ( See related reference , in Joan Pet. Maffeus :  ‘Hist. Indiae’ Lib. II. P.210, quoted by Bernard Thoma, p.98 )
Italian version of the song was given in the book, Legendi de St.Thomas, by Fr.Rocco, Rome.( 1938 ). ( See Brown, p.49-50 ).The copy about which, Barnard Thoma, referred, in his book, is available in Mannanam Monastery.According to historian, T.K.Joseph, it was known to have been sung by one Varghese of Palayoor, in 1892.
In an age, when local history, in the form of folklores,legends, etc. has more importance in modern historiography, they are sufficient for us, to reconstruct many incidents with historical certitude, the journey, apostolate , miracles , and death of the Apostle in India . ( eg, statements like ‘ apostle landed in Maliankara, in 50 AD., in the month of Dhanu’ ( Dec. – Jan. ), ‘after a short stay,  apostle went to Mylapre and China’ , ‘returned to Maliamkara at the invitation of the King of Thiruvanchikulam’, ‘ in 59 A D, in the month of Kanni ( sept-Oct. ), was called back to Mylapore by king Cheran’, ‘ after 2 ½ yrs. returned to  Malabar, reached ‘Malyaattur’, then  ‘revisited the 7 churches founded’, ‘ in 72.AD, the apostle was Martyred at Mylapore’ ,and so on.( See Bernard Thoma, Ch.III & V.C.George, p.181 . ) As material expression of very ancient local tradition existed for centuries, the contents of these folklores of this genre, like Margamkalippattu ,Veeradiyanpattu, Pananpattu etc.can be used as collateral evidence for historical studies.

Historical validity of St.Thomas Tradition : final conclusion.
Through the foregoing five articles, the author was making a sincere effort to analyze, whether the St.Thomas Tradition, builtin-belief among 6 million, ancient Christians of Kerala, about twenty centuries, has any historical value or rational basis. At last, I too agree with the unbiased, in principle, positive  stand of eminent Foreign historians (like Vincent Smith, Edgar Thurston, Francis Day, Alphonse Mingana,,) and Indian historians  (like K.P.Padmanabha Menon, Sardar K.M.Panicker, A.Sreedhara Menon, and Mrs. Romila Thapar and others ) ; church historians of repute,( like Barnard Thoma, Placid Podpara, A. M .Mundadan, Benedict Vadakkekkara etc),that  the legacy of St.Thomas and personal visit of the Apostle to Kerala coast of South India in the 1st century,A.D.,  is a ' historical probability', as good as history.
In a purely academic sense, even-though the author possess a Masters Degree, in history, is not  an expert in the subject-matter. Then there arise the question,what prompted me to undertake such an 'adventure'. It is simple,the interest in history,particularly St.Thomas research, with the back-ground of the knowledge acquired from various sources especially authoritative English and Malayalam, with a critical approach. Though I have a clear view point and  weltanschauung, tried to make the study objective and rational.


1 comment:

  1. Thomas or Didymus, which means twin, was the apostles nickname. Surely he would not have introduced himself during his travel and in the new country by his nickname and also establish a new community under a nickname. Among the apostles and early "Followers of the Way" (Jesus's followers were called this, not Christians, see Acts) there was no custom of establishing churches, only communities (Ecclesia). And Jesus was not worshiped as a god until circa 300 AD. So what is the relevance of saying that St Thomas established churches/places of worship in 52 AD. With regard to the nickname, could someone with another name have arrived in circa 52 AD that fits the description of St Thomas and his works?