According to traditional accounts, some time in the first century the Apostle Thomas journeyed into India and there established churches and made disciples for Christ. The Apostle Thomas is believed to have been the first to bring Christianity to India, in 52 AD, arriving in Kodungallur, Kerala, where he established Seven Churches. Thomas was a Jew by birth and spoke Aramaic, so his first converts in India were likely the Cochin Jews in southern India. What is intriguing about this is that these Churches were then for the most part isolated from the rest of Christendom for several centuries, and even today they are a distinct group among Christians; although in more recent times they have come under the influence of Roman Catholicism and Oriental Orthodoxy. They have traditionally retained worship on the Sabbath rather than Sunday, kept Kashrut dietary laws (‘kosher’), segregated men and women in places of worship, used Syriac and Aramaic in liturgies, and so on. Many of these practices continue today.What this means is that we have a group that was established very early in Christian history, but who were not influenced by the cultural and political shifts of the Greek and Roman world. Historian Vincent A. Smith says “It must be admitted that a personal visit of the Apostle Thomas to South India was easily feasible in the traditional belief that he came by way of Socotra, where an ancient Christian settlement undoubtedly existed. I am now satisfied that the Christian church of South India is extremely ancient…”
When we find such a sample group we can glean a good deal from comparing what is similar about them to the main group, and then looking at what is different about them. In each case the information we gather will give us a unique insight into the period when the groups were unified. What we mean here is that when Thomas traveled to India in the first century, he doubtless took the theology and practices of the first century Christians with him. So what we find common between these Saint Thomas Christians and Greco-Roman Christians should be a good indicator that the practices were quite primitive. On the other hand where we find differences or distinctions, we might question as to why. This gives us a unique insight into the development of Christianity.
Of course in any such study the bias of the researcher comes into play. Which simply means that the researcher will narrow his view to what he is looking for. Here there are two instances for which I am immediately struck by the Saint Thomas Christians. The first being their designation in the native land as the Nasrani. This is significant because of the hypothesis that the Nazarene sect, or the Essenes, were very influential to the emergence of Christianity. The point here is that at the time of Thomas’s journey to India they must have still referred to themselves as Nazarenes rather than the later designation of Christians (See Acts 11:26). Further, as we mentioned earlier, the practice of Sabbath rather than Sunday worship, dietary restrictions and other practices place them at a connection point with the very earliest of Christianity when Jewish customs were still weighing heavily on the practice of the Church; perhaps prior to the council of Acts 15.
It has been noted that the designation Jesus of Nazareth is perhaps a miss representation. The Greek form of the phrase is “Jesus the Nazarēnos” or “Jesus the Nazōraios.” A possible explanation of this is because the Nazarenes were a sect that inhabited the very area where Jesus and John based their ministry, an area where there were monastic compounds and the area was called Nazareth or “of the Nazarenes.” Which designated the area in which the Nazarene sect inhabited. This would strengthen the connection of primitive Christians to the Essenes, which has a possible etymological connection the Nazarene; one being Greek and the other Hebrew sharing the definition of holy or consecrated. This also explains why there is little mentioned of primitive Christianity as a distinct movement among the Jews until much later; after Christianity is well under way in becoming a world religion. To the outward observer there was perhaps little difference. The fact that the Churches established by Thomas still carry this designation seems to substantiate that the primitive Christians were not a distinct movement from the Nazarene sect but a continuation of that movement.
The second distinction of note comes from a particular artifact that is common to the area. This is known as the Saint Thomas Cross. These are very ancient representations that have been found in the Churches of the Nasrani. The meaning of the symbolism of these crosses has been debated by scholars. What we have here is a flowering cross emerging from a lotus flower. To the top of the cross is what has been assumed by some to be a dove descending, but could perhaps be another lotus bloom rising toward heaven. It may also represent the chalice of the Eucharist. In this particular motif we find the earthly realm represented by the arches, which is how ancient peoples viewed the sky, and then above another realm with another flowering cross and a phoenix on each side. Below the open lotus flower is three steps leading upward. Of particular note is the absence of the figure of Christ on the cross here; which is typical of Latin crosses. Perhaps here the focus is on resurrection rather than the death of Christ.
The combination of flowering cross and lotus flower is of particular interest. The lotus flower in India has traditionally been associated with both Hinduism and Buddhism and connected to the concepts of rebirth. This is because at nightfall it closes and goes beneath the water and at dawn it climbs up above the water and reopens. It was the only plant to flower and fruit at the same time, as it would emerge as pure white from the depths of the muddy swamp and grow above the water. The connection to the concept and the victorious Christ rising above death is quite natural. Further there is a connection to Biblical numerology. Throughout ancient Egypt the lotus was used in their math, helping to count to high decrees. One lotus would act as 1,000 and two lotus as 2,000 and so on. The lotus is also representative of the sun in ancient Egypt. So the concepts of the resurrection of Christ and the symbolism of the lotus flower is easily seen. At the end of each member of the cross is a pomegranate which indicates influence and fruitfulness. We see then the message of Christ moving throughout the earth and influencing the four corners of the earth. The pomegranate is also a sacred fruit in both Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism.
It has been pointed out that Christianity did not meet the resistance in India that it did in the Roman empire initially. Perhaps this is because that the concepts of primitive Christianity were not in stark contrast to those of the indigenous Indian religions. This seems to be verified in the coming together of these great symbols of resurrection – the empty cross and the lotus flower. Further it demonstrates a trait in early Christians to incorporate other traditions rather than attempt to abolish them.
By looking at the practices and faith of the Nasrani Christians, I believe we are given a chance to glance at Christianity in different light. To see its growth within a culture different from the one we are used to seeing it placed in. To see it react differently to other religious views. We are used to the bloody clash between Christianity and Roman paganism. However in India we see a different interaction. We see Christianity sitting gracefully in the midst of the spiritual traditions of the east – and rising forth like the lotus flower.