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Syrian Church in Pre-Portuguese India

Updated: Jul 2, 2019

Excerpt from 'One Territory - One Bishop? Or Shall the Syrian Rites Die?' by Rev Dr Thomas Nangachiveettil (April 1971, Pp 32-33) 

The Syrian Church in the 8th and 9th centuries. By "Syrian" the author refers to the language "Syriac" and the "Syrian Churches" means the Churches where the Liturgical language was Syriac.

Long before Rome took Latin as it's liturgical language (Fourth century AD), a thousand years before the Roman Rite was imposed on western Europe and more than a thousand years before the first Latin missionary set his foot on Indian soil, the Rite of the Christians of India and the jurisdiction of those people were Syrian.

Fr Hosten says "There appears to have existed in Pre- Portuguese India, an almost unbroken line of Christian settlements from Sind down to Cape Comorin and Mylapore." Cosmose Indicopleustes (AD 535) mentions of several Christian communities on the Coromandel coast and in Ceylon (Antiquities from San Thome and Mylapore, Rev H. Hosten S.J. 1936, p. 402). Assemani quotes Cosmos as having found Christians in the Ganges valley, central and eastern India, Pegu, Cochin China, Siam and Tonquin (Assemani Vol III, ii, p. 521 and Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol. X, 2, p. 486) Patna is mentioned as a Metropolitan See in AD 1222 (Wiltsch, Geography and Statistics of Church, pp. 163-168). Marco Polo who visited India at the end of the thirteenth century states that there were in middle (central) India, six great kings and kingdoms, and that three of these were Christian and three Saracen (Cordiers, Marco Polo, Vol II, p. 427). Abd-er-Razzak, a Muhammadan traveller, who visited India, in 1442, mentions that the Vizier (Prime Minister) of Vijayanagar in the Deccan was a Christian (Hakluyt Library, Ist Series, Vol. XXII, p. 41).  Nicolo Conti who visited India, in the 15th century says that he found at Mylapore, a community of a thousand Syrian Christians and also mentions that they 'are scattered all over India, as the Jews are among us'. He speaks of these Christians as being the only exceptions in the matter of polygamy and mentions having met a person from north India who told him of a king of that area as well as the entire population being Christian (Nicolo Conti, India in the Fifteenth Century, p. 7). In an old map (called the Catalan Map) dated 1375, there is a note mentioning the existence of a Christian King Stephen, in Orissa.  In AD 1506, Louis of Varthema met, in Bengal, Syrian Christian merchants who came from Sarnam or Ayoutha, the ancient capital of Siam. They took him to Pegu in Burma, where the King had 1000 Christians in his service. The merchants had taken Louis with them to Borneo, Java and to the Molucca Islands when they went there for trade (Nau, L'expansion nestorienne en Asie, p. 278). We cannot help remarking in this connection, that before the advent of the Portuguese (1498) , the only form of Christianity known to nearly the whole of Asia was the Syrian Church and the only jurisdiction that existed was also of the Syrian Church

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