Did St. Thomas the apostle come to India? Most of the Indian people believe that he came to south India, and spread the good news even before the Roman Catholic Church is formed. However, the church doesn't accept this teaching. What is the truth?
Yes Saint Thomas had been to India and there are enough of evidences which seems to substantiate those claims. There are christian communities in South Western India (Kerala State) which trace back their ancestry to conversions that happened during that time.A substantial part of the Christian community in that Indian state has Syrian Christian lineage. It is said that they had come over to India from Syria and Iraq during the early part of Islamic persecution. Some claims are also made about Christians coming there in the First Century along with the Traders along the Spice route. The RC church does not have much history in this part, but grew rapidly among the populace following the Portugese conquest of south India. Demographically a majority of RC population in India, can trace back their lineage to Hindu communities in South India unlike the Syrian Christians who are predominantly of the Orthodox and Marthoma church folds.
Did St. Thomas come to India?
According to Catholic tradition the answer is yes!
Historical evidence seems to suggest the same results, although there is no direct proofs so to speak.
The long-accepted belief is that St. Thomas preached in South India and established churches and left congregations known to this day as the St.Thomas’ Christians, and that in the end he was martyred in St. Thomas’ Mount and buried in San Thome, now a suburb of Madras. Thus the glory of the introduction of Christianity in India, by time-honoured tradition, has been ascribed to St. Thomas the Apostle. There are many scholars who hold the view that he did and there are also those who take the opposite stance. I will be trying to present as briefly as possible the evidence that points to the conclusion that St. Thomas’s visit to the shores of South India is not unfounded.
St. Thomas in India
The Doctrine of the Apostles, which was probably written in the second century AD, mentions that St. Thomas evangelised India. We also have St. Ephraem (A.D. 330 – 378) attesting that the Apostle was martyred in India and that later his relics were taken to Edessa (a city in Upper Mesopotamia, present day Şanlıurfa inTurkey). Origen (A.D. 184 – 253) and Eusebius of Caesarea (the bishop of Caesarea Maritima from A.D. 315 to about A.D. 340) state that St. Thomas evangelised the Parthians and the same statement is made by the “Clementine Recognitions,” the original of which may have been written about A.D. 210.
A much more detailed description of his journey is given in an apocryphal literature called Acta Thomae (The Acts of St. Thomas) for which there also exists certain historical data that would suggest that the apocryphal source contains some truth in them. Harnack, a prominent church historian, has assigned to it a date before A.D. 220. This work connects with St.Thomas two Eastern Kings, whose names appear in the Syriac version as Gudnaphar/Gundaphar, and Mazdai. It is said in it that Thomas was able to convert the King Gudnaphar, his brother and many other people. After that, while St.Thomas was preaching “throughout all India,” he went to the city of King Mazdai. There, as the result of his converting Mazdai’s wife Tertia and a noble lady named Mygdonia, he was condemned to death. He was slain with spears by four soldiers on a mountain outside the city. And he was buried in the sepulchre in which the ancient kings were buried. But subsequently, while King Mazdai was still living, the bones of the Apostle were secretly removed by one of the brethren and were taken away to “the West”.
Corroboration from external sources has been found in the form of coins which from 1834 onwards have been obtained from Beghram in the vicinity of Kabul, from Pathankot in Gurdaspur district of Punjab on the north-east of Amritsar, from Kandahar, and from various places in Sindh and Seistan, bearing the name of one of the Kings, Gondopheres, mentioned in the tradition. The discovery of what is known as the Takht-i-Bahi inscription (in 1857) has helped to date the reign of Guduphara/Gondophernes in A.D. 20 or 21, and in establishing the fact that in A.D. 46 his dominions included, in India itself, at any rate the territory round about Peshawar.
It is about the second king, Mazdai, that scholars are divided regarding where he reigned – was he the King Vasudeva of Mathura or a king from the southern part of India. The attempt to identify King Vasudeva with Mazdai does pose some historical problems. One of them being, in The Oxford History of India, 1919, it is stated that Vasudeva came to power in A.D. 182. If this is true, then it would place him too late in the timeline to be the second King that the Apostle visited.
St. Thomas in South India
The Acts of St. Thomas and the Doctrine of the Apostles does mention that the Apostle preached “throughout all India” and established himself there, by making himself Guide and Ruler of the church (Bishop) which he built there and ministered there. Therefore excluding Southern India from the scope of St. Thomas’s labours and confining him to the north does not seem reasonable. Instead we do find some descriptions that points towards the possibility of a South-Indian apostolate of St. Thomas. In the Acts the General who heard of St. Thomas preaching comes to him in a cart drawn by cattle, which is characteristic of Southern India. Had this incident taken place in the north, the General would have come mounted on a steed. Gondophares, for instance, is figured on his coins riding a horse, not seated in a cart drawn by oxen. Also seen is the depiction of Mygdonia using the palanquin when going to see the Apostle, which is also specially peculiar to Southern India. Even the name for the mode of transport originates from the Tamil word pallanku – a covered type of litter for a stretched-out passenger, carried on long curved poles carried on the shoulders of four or more bearers.
Even in the hymns of St. Ephraem (A.D. 300 – 378) we see the traditional belief that St. Thomas was connected to India. Though the exact name of the place of his martyrdom and burial is not mentioned, it does have some indicators as to where these events might have taken place. In the hymns the place whom St. Thomas evangelised is called “land of people dark” and the people themselves are called “the sunburnt ”. Both of which point to the possibility that the tradition current in St. Ephraem’s time was that St. Thomas preached mainly in Southern India and was martyred and buried there.
The Catholic Encyclopedia article on St. Thomas the Apostle basically states the affirmative in this regard also, but in slightly different wording.
Little is recorded of St. Thomas the Apostle, nevertheless thanks to the fourth Gospel his personality is clearer to us than that of some others of the Twelve. His name occurs in all the lists of the Synoptists (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6, cf. Acts 1:13), but in St. John he plays a distinctive part. First, when Jesus announced His intention of returning to Judea to visit Lazarus, "Thomas" who is called Didymus [the twin], said to his fellow disciples: "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:16). Again it was St. Thomas who during the discourse before the Last Supper raised an objection: "Thomas saith to him: Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?" (John 14:5). But more especially St. Thomas is remembered for his incredulity when the other Apostles announced Christ's Resurrection to him: "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25); but eight days later he made his act of faith, drawing down the rebuke of Jesus: "Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed" (John 20:29).
This exhausts all our certain knowledge regarding the Apostle but his name is the starting point of a considerable apocryphal literature, and there are also certain historical data which suggest that some of this apocryphal material may contains germs of truth. The principal document concerning him is the "Acta Thomae", preserved to us with some variations both in Greek and in Syriac, and bearing unmistakeable signs of its Gnostic origin. It may indeed be the work of Bardesanes himself. The story in many of its particulars is utterly extravagant, but it is the early date, being assigned by Harnack (Chronologie, ii, 172) to the beginning of the third century, before A.D. 220. If the place of its origin is really Edessa, as Harnack and others for sound reasons supposed (ibid., p. 176), this would lend considerable probability to the statement, explicitly made in "Acta" (Bonnet, cap. 170, p. 286), that the relics of Apostle Thomas, which we know to have been venerated at Edessa, had really come from the East. The extravagance of the legend may be judged from the fact that in more than one place (cap. 31, p. 148) it represents Thomas (Judas Thomas, as he is called here and elsewhere in Syriac tradition) as the twin brother of Jesus. The Thomas in Syriac is equivalant to didymos in Greek, and means twin. Rendel Harris who exaggerates very much the cult of the Dioscuri, wishes to regards this as a transformation of a pagan worship of Edessa but the point is at best problematical. The story itself runs briefly as follows: At the division of the Apostles, India fell to the lot of Thomas, but he declared his inability to go, whereupon his Master Jesus appeared in a supernatural way to Abban, the envoy of Gundafor, an Indian king, and sold Thomas to him to be his slave and serve Gundafor as a carpenter. Then Abban and Thomas sailed away until they came to Andrapolis, where they landed and attended the marriage feast of the ruler's daughter. Strange occurrences followed and Christ under the appearance of Thomas exhorted the bride to remain a Virgin. Coming to India Thomas undertook to build a palace for Gundafor, but spend the money entrusted to him on the poor. Gundafor imprisoned him; but the Apostle escaped miraculously and Gundafor was converted. Going about the country to preach, Thomas met with strange adventures from dragons and wild asses. Then he came to the city of King Misdai (Syriac Mazdai), where he converted Tertia the wife of Misdai and Vazan his son. After this he was condemed to death, led out of city to a hill, and pierced through with spears by four soldiers. He was buried in the tomb of the ancient kings but his remains were afterwards removed to the West.
Now it is certainly a remarkable fact that about the year A.D. 46 a king was reigning over that part of Asia south of Himalayas now represented by Afghanistan, Baluchistan, the Punjab, and Sind, who bore the name Gondophernes or Guduphara. This we know both from the discovery of coins, some of the Parthian type with Greek legends, others of the Indian types with the legends in an Indian dialect in Kharoshthi characters. Despite sundry minor variations the identity of the name with the Gundafor of the "Acta Thomae" is unmistakable and is hardly disputed. Further we have the evidence of the Takht-i-Bahi inscription, which is dated and which the best specialists accept as establishing the King Gunduphara probably began to reign about A.D. 20 and was still reigning in 46. Again there are excellent reasons for believing that Misdai or Mazdai may well be transformation of a Hindu name made on the Iranian soil. In this case it will probably represent a certain King Vasudeva of Mathura, a successor of Kanishka. No doubt it can be urged that the Gnostic romancer who wrote the "Acta Thomae" may have adopted a few historical Indian names to lend verisimilitude to his fabrication, but as Mr. Fleet urges in his severely critical paper "the names put forward here in connection with St.Thomas are distinctly not such as have lived in Indian story and tradition" (Journal of R. Asiatic Soc., 1905, p. 235).
On the other hand, though the tradition that St. Thomas preached in "India" was widely spread in both East and West and is to be found in such writers as Ephraem Syrus, Ambrose, Paulinus, Jerome, and, later Gregory of Tours and others, still it is difficult to discover any adequate support for the long-accepted belief that St. Thomas pushed his missionary journeys as far south as Mylapore, not far from Madras, and there suffered martyrdom. In that region is still to be found a granite bas-relief cross with a Pahlavi (ancient Persian) inscription dating from the seventh century, and the tradition that it was here that St. Thomas laid down his life is locally very strong. Certain it is also that on the Malabar or west coast of southern India a body of Christians still exists using a form of Syriac for its liturgical language. Whether this Church dates from the time of St. Thomas the Apostle (there was a Syro-Chaldean bishop John "from India and Persia" who assisted at the Council of Nicea in 325) or whether the Gospel was first preached there in 345 owing to the Persian persecution under Shapur (or Sapor), or whether the Syrian missionaries who accompanied a certain Thomas Cana penetrated to the Malabar coast about the year 745 seems difficult to determine. We know only that in the sixth century Cosmas Indicopleustes speaks of the existence of Christians at Male (? Malabar) under a bishop who had been consecrated in Persia. King Alfred the Great is stated in the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" to have sent an expedition to establish relations with these Christians of the Far East. On the other hand the reputed relics of St. Thomas were certainly at Edessa in the fourth century, and there they remained until they were translated to Chios in 1258 and towards to Ortona. The improbable suggestion that St. Thomas preached in America (American Eccles. Rev., 1899, pp. 1-18) is based upon a misunderstanding of the text of the Acts of the Apostles (1:8; cf. Berchet "Fonte italiane per la storia della scoperta del Nuovo Mondo", II, 236, and I, 44).
Besides the "Acta Thomae" of which a different and notably shorter redaction exists in Ethiopic and Latin, we have an abbreviated form of a so-called "Gospel of Thomas" originally Gnostic, as we know it now merely a fantastical history of the childhood of Jesus, without any notably heretical colouring. There is also a "Revelatio Thomae", condemned as apocryphal in the Decree of Pope Gelasius, which has recently been recovered from various sources in a fragmentary condition (see the full text in the Revue benedictine, 1911, pp. 359-374).
The tomb of Saint Thomas the Apostle in Mylapore, India