History of Malanakra Orthodox Syrian Church


The Malanakara Orthodox Syrian Church, also known as the Indian Orthodox Church, is an autocephalous Oriental Orthodox church centred in the Indian state of Kerala.  It is one of the churches of India’s Saint Thomas Christian community, which traces its origins to the evangelical activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century.  The church is headed by the autonomous Catholicos of East.

The arriaval of St Thomas and the beginning of The Church

Even from the period of King Solomon (BC 976-937), India had trade relationship with the wide world. The main ports of trade were Ponnani at Muchiri and Alexandria at Africa. Jews were the chief part of this trade and India especially South India was famous all around the world. In AD 45 Hippalus discovered the monsoon wind and the duration of travel was minimized to 45 days. These circumstances helped St. Thomas to arrive in Kodungalloor (Muziris) in Kerala in 52 AD. St. Thomas preached the gospel, established seven churches, and moved on to other kingdom, returning to Madras (Mylapore) in 72 AD where he was martyred that year. Writers of the 4th century, St. Ephrem and St. John Chrysostom knew also about the relics of St. Thomas resting at that time in Edessa, having been brought there from India by West Asian merchants. The seven original churches were located at Malankara (Malayattoor), Palayur (near Chavakkad), Koovakayal (near North Paravur), Kokkamangalam (South Pallipuram?), Kollam, Niranam and Nilackel (Chayal). Of the same pattern adopted by the other Apostles, each local Church was self-administered, guided by a group of presbyters and presided over by the elder priest or bishop.

The foreign connections

In 190 AD Panteanus came from Alexandria to help Indian Christianity. Eusebius and Jerome in 5th century wrote about our relationship with Alexandria. The Fathers of the three Ecumenical councils—–the Synods of Nicea (325), Ephesus (381) and Constantinople (431)—as well as the Fathers who lived and taught during the period 300-450 AD, even if they were not present at these councils, are among the founders of the Orthodox Faith. They include Mar Athanasius, (ca 296-373) Mar Baselios (ca 330-379) Mar Gregorios Nizanzen (329-389) Mar Gregorios of Nyssa (330-395), Mar Cyrillos (died 444), Mar Ivanios (St John Chrysostom, died 407), Mar Alexander of Alexandria, Mar Didymus the Blind, Mar Theophilos of Alexandria, Mar Eustathius of Antioch, Mar Eusebius of Caesarea, Mar Kurillos of Jerusalem, and Mar Dioscoros of Alexandria. Many of these names are commemorated in the intercessory prayers (thoobden) of the Eucharistic Liturgy. The last of them, remembered in the fifth thoobden, is Mar Jacob of Edessa (died 708) and Mar Isaac of Nineveh (died 700). Without attempting an exhaustive list of the Fathers of the Church, the great ascetic tradition of the monastic fathers like St Antony, St Pachamios, St Makarios, St Simeon the Stylite, and St Ephrem must be emphasized as bedrock of the Orthodox Faith. The articles of the faith, based on the conclusions of the three great councils of the Early Church, are contained in the Orthodox Creed, an essential part of the daily prayers of the Malankara faithful.

By the 7th century, specific references of the Indian Church began to appear in Persian records. The Metropolitan of India and the Metropolitan of China are mentioned in the consecration records of Patriarchs of the East. At one stage, however, the Indian Church was claimed to be in the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Fars but this issue was settled by Patriarch Sleeba Zoha (714-728 AD) who recognized the traditional dignity of the autonomous Metropolitan of India.

We have evidence that in the 8th century the Indian Church had its Primate known as “The Metropolitan and the Gate of All India” a title adopted presumably under Islamic influence. The Vatican Codex 22, written in Cranganore in 1301 gives the titles as “The Metropolitan of the Throne of St. Thomas and of the whole Church of the Christians in India.”

The Indian Church maintained its autonomous administration. The Church of Alexandria and Persia had a tradition which acknowledged autonomy of Churches in its communion abroad. The Church in Kerala continued as an administratively independent community till the 16th century. The laying on of hands and other practices were copied from Alexandria church. The first priests were Jewish converts and Buddhist converts and St. Thomas gave the first liturgical observances in Syriac which was accessible to Jewish converts.

On the life of the Church in India during the first 15 centuries, the balance of historical evidence and the thrust of local tradition point to its basic autonomy sustained by the core of its own faith and culture. It received with the trust and courtesy missionaries, bishops and migrants as they came from whichever Eastern Church Tigris or Babylon, Antioch or Alexandria, but not from the more distant Constantinople or Rome. There were times in this long period when the Christians in India had been without a bishop and were led by an Archdeacon. And requests were sent, sometimes with success, to one or another of the eastern prelates to help restore the episcopate in India. Meanwhile the church in Persia and much of west Asia declined by internal causes and the impact of Islam, affecting both the Nestorian Patriarchate of the East (Babylon) and the Jacobite Catholicate of the East (Tigris). As will be seen from the later history of the Indian Church, the latter was re-established in India (Kottayam) in 1912 while the former was transplanted to America in 1940.

The Portuguese period

Things changed during the Portuguese period. The missionaries who came from abroad were eager to bring the Indian Church into communion with Rome. They worked on it almost through the 16th century. In 1599 by the Synod of Diamper, the assembly of representatives from churches was forced to give up the Indian Church’s connection with the prelates of the Eastern Churches. But there was dissatisfaction among the people. In their combined zeal to colonize and proselytize, the Portuguese might not have readily grasped the way of life of the Thomas Christians who seemed to accommodate differing strands of Eastern Christian thought and influence, while preserving the core of their original faith. The response of the visitors was to try and bring under Romo-Syrian prelates, apart from the new converts in the coastal areas under Latin prelates.

Pushed beyond a limit, the main body of Thomas Christians rose in revolt and took a collective oath at the Coonen Cross in Mattancherry in 1653, resolving to preserve the faith and autonomy of their Church and to elect its head. Accordingly, the then local head of the Malankara Church, Archdeacon Thomas was raised to the title of Mar Thoma, the first in the long line up to Mar Thoma IX till 1816. At the request of the Thomas Christians, the ‘Jacobite’ bishop, Mar Gregorios of Jerusalem came to India in 1664, confirmed the Episcopal consecration of Mar Thoma I as the head of the Orthodox Church in India. Thus began the formal relationship with the ‘Jacobite’ Syrian Church, as it happened, in explicit support of the traditional autonomy of the Indian Church.

Now Rome entered the field directly through Missionaries, and a section of those who rebelled went back to Roman allegiance. A body of the people led by the Archdeacon, who stood for the administrative autonomy of the Indian Church in spite of serious difficulties, were determined to keep to the independence of the Indian Church. The Portuguese were in fact instrumental in causing a division in the one united church in India. Although they succeeded in getting the allegiance of a party in the Church to the Roman Catholic community, an equally important party did not follow their way.

The foreign connection again

Mar Thoma I was followed in succession by a series of Prelates with the same name till 1816 when the last of them namely Mar Thoma IX came to the scene, but was soon replaced by Mar Dionysius Joseph Pulikkottil I. During the reign of Pakalomattom bishops, Anteochene contacts came into practice and they wanted Malankara Church to be their colony.

Malankara Orthodox Church had felt the need of assistance for establishing systematic education for its clergy, teaching the people in the faith, instructing the clergy in properly celebrating the liturgical services and above all assistance in the maintenance of the Episcopal succession intact. But the Orthodox Church maintained its autonomous administration and life under local leadership. Even the help from the Antiochene Syrian Patriarch was without any idea of formally submitting to his jurisdiction, but only for an over all spiritual supervision and of keeping to a friendly relation.

There were differences of opinion over the authority of the Patriarch in the Malankara Church and it created certain difficulties. But the Church has always been successful in maintaining its freedom and never allowed any foreign domination.

Co-operation with the C.M.S

By 1795 the British established themselves in South India and Kerala came under their sway. During the time of Col. Munroe who was the British Resident in Kerala, Pulikottill Ittoop Ramban expressed his interest in founding a Seminary for the teaching of the Church’s Clergy. The Resident supported him and the seminary was founded in 1815. Pulikottill Ittoop Ramban became a Bishop -Metropolitan Mar Dionysius Joseph I.

From 1816 the experiment of co-operation between the Malankara Church and the C. M. S. of the Anglican Church was carried on, but it was found to be unsuccessful and was called off in 1836, at the Synod of Mavelikkara. This incident led to the division of the community into three bodies. One of them a reformed group tried to bring about serious reforms in the liturgy and practices of the Church as a whole but failed. After about half a century of conflict within the church this body had to withdraw and organize itself as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. A smaller body of the Syrian Christians opted to join with the missionaries and be absorbed in the Anglican Church. The majority of the community continued in the Church without accepting the reforms.

The Patriarch of Antioch enters

The conflict between the body which adopted the reform and that which opposed it was a serious development in the church during the 19th century. This led to the latter to appeal for help from the Antiochene Syrian Patriarch. In 1875 Patriarch Peter III came to Kerala and held a Synod of representatives of Churches at Mulanthuruthy in 1876. This Synod adopted a number of resolutions including an admission that the Church would continue in the communion of the Patriarch and the Syrian Church of Antioch. However the Patriarch tried to see in these decisions more than the Indian Church really wanted to acknowledge.

Following the Synod of Mulanthuruthy in 1876 litigation in court between the party in favor of the reforms and the party against it continued. It came to an end in 1889 with the judgment announced in favor of the latter by the then highest court of Kerala, the Royal Court of Appeal. The majority in a panel of three judges gave their verdict admitting that from the middle of the 18th century an over-all spiritual supervision used to be exercised by the Patriarch over the Malankara Church and that he had a right to claim it.

Patriarch Peter I1I was not satisfied with this judgment. He was keen to establish that he had full authority over the Malankara Church both in its spiritual and in its temporal matters and not merely an over all spiritual supervision. Even though the Patriarch tried to suspend the then Malankara Metropolitan and the President of Malankara, His Holiness Pulikottil Joseph Mar Dionysius II, it was in vain. All trustees supported the Malankara Metropolitan. His second successor Patriarch Mar Abdullah II was determined to follow up the matter. With this intention he came to Kerala in 1909 and pressed the issue. But that led to a sad division in the Church from 1911, one party siding with the Patriarch and the other lining up with Metropolitan Mar Dionysius VI of Vattasseril who stood against him and wanted to keep up the independence of Malankara Church.

Thus a relationship which started for safe-guarding the integrity and independence of the Orthodox Church in India, against the misguided, if understandable, ambitions of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Protestant Churches opened a long and tortuous chapter in which concord and conflict between the Indian and Syrian Orthodox Churches have continued to alternate to this day.

Catholicate established in Malankara in 1912

In this conflict, the Metropolitan could obtain the support of Patriarch Mar Abdul Messiah, the immediate successor to Patriarch Peter III. Patriarch Peter III was succeeded in 1895 by Mar Abdul Messiah. By a state interference he had lost his position in Turkey and came to be replaced by Mar Abdulla. While Metropolitan Mar Dionysius VI clashed with Mar Abdullah, the Canonical senior Patriarch Abdul Messiah offered to come to the assistance of the former. Thus in 1912 he came to Kerala and associated with Mar Dionysius VI and the Bishops and the Church with him, to establish the Catholicate of the East in Malankara. The ceremony was held at St. Mary’s Church, Niranam on 15 September 1912; Niranam Church is one of the seven Churches founded by St. Thomas.

The Catholicate of the East was thus established in Malankara, with the co-operation of the canonical Patriarch Abdul Messiah, who was senior to Mar Abdulla. Thereby the Patriarch himself has withdrawn his right of spiritual oversight if any in the Indian Church, which the Royal Court of Appeal had acknowledged for him in 1889.

The designation “Catholicos of the East” to the successors of St. Thomas the Apostle, was given by the Jerusalem Synod of AD 231. The head quarters of the Orthodox Church of the East was first at Uraha (Edessa) in Persia. This was moved to ‘Selucia’ and it was there the title “Catholicos of the East” originated. Catholicos is an ecclesiastical dignitary recognized in the Antiochene Syrian Church also. He is equal in rank with the Patriarch though the latter is considered as first among equals (primus interparees).

Constitution of The Church adopted in 1934

The Constitution of the Orthodox Church in India (which has retained the traditional name, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church) was brought into force on 26 December 1934, with some amendments made later in1951 and 1967. Article 4 defines membership of the church: “All men and women, who have received Holy Baptism and believe in the divinity of the Holy Trinity, the incarnation of the Son, the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father, the Holy Church, and the application of the Nicene Creed, three-in-all, the divine inspiration of the Holy Traditions, the intercession of the Mother of God and the Saints, the commemoration of the departed ones, the administration of the seven sacraments and the canonical observances like fasting, and have accepted the obligation to observe them, will be members of the Church.”

The Constitution defines the institutional structure of the Church for preserving its integrity and autonomy and for administering its spiritual, ecclesiastical and temporal functions. It upholds the historical tradition that the Patriarchate of Syria and the Catholicate of the East freely function, each in its own sphere, mutually respecting and not interfering in each other’s domain. The church is self-governing under the ethical and spiritual guidance of its ecclesiastical head.

The representative basis of self-governance is assured at all the three levels – the parish, the diocese and the church as a whole. The Parish Assembly of all its members elects the Managing Committee each year from among the lay members. The vicar, appointed by the Diocesan Metropolitan is the joint-steward, together with the elected lay trustee of the assets of the parish, and presides over the managing committee and the parish assembly. Likewise, the diocese is administered through the Diocesan Council representing all the parishes. It is presided over by the Diocesan Metropolitan and assisted by the Diocesan Secretary.

At the apex, the Church has a representative Association, by the traditional name of Malankara Syrian Christian Association. It consists of the priest and 1 to 10 laymen (depending on the number of members in the parish) from each parish. The Church Managing Committee is drawn from among the members of the Association. The Catholicos, as the Malankara Metropolitan, presides over the Association and the Managing Committee. Those prelates having administrative charge of a diocese are vice-presidents of the Association.

The Catholicos is the supreme head of the Orthodox Church in India. The present Catholicos is the 91st chronological successor to the Catholicate of the East founded by St. Thomas the Apostle in Seleucia, later revived in Tigris and relocated in 1912 in Kottayam. The prime jurisdiction regarding the temporal, ecclesiastical and spiritual administration of the church is vested in him, in his capacity as the Metropolitan of the Malankara Archdiocese. He is the trustee of the central assets of the Church, together with two elected co-trustees, a priest and a lay member of the Association. The Malankara Metropolitan, as all Metropolitans, is elected by the Malankara Association and approved by the Holy Episcopal Synod.

The Catholicos presides over the Holy Episcopal Synod which is the supreme authority in all matters concerning faith, order and discipline in the Church.


Although majority of the members of the church numbering about 2.5 million live in Kerala, they could be found now spread over not only in all the different states of India, but also in all the continents through out the world. There are a total of 30Dioceses now, 20 of them in Kerala and 10 of them outside Kerala,

It can only be a gift of Grace that the faith and tradition of a small community of the early Christians in India have remained alive and vibrant throughout nearly two thousand years. Even amidst periodic storm, from one source or another, across these centuries of change, the community has maintained an inner calm, in the safety of the spiritual anchor, cast in the original concept of the word Orthodox, which is the right glorification of God.