The native Christians of India known as the Syrian Christians of Kerala have always been divided into two distinct groups. The larger group is known as the St. Thomas Christians numbering more than 6,000,000 today who by tradition claim direct descent from the families converted by St. Thomas the Apostle in India. St. Thomas the Apostle is believed to have done missionary work in Kerala and built seven and a half church communities. These native communities would later be supplemented by Christian merchants of many nations.
The minority group known as the Knanaya aprox. 300,000, are said to be the descendants of a distinct Middle Eastern migration in the 4th century. Because both communities follow the Syriac liturgical tradition, they are known together as the Syrian Christians of Kerala. Because the Knanaya are few in number, they are often considered a sub-sect of the St. Thomas Christians.
The Knanaya are the descendants of 4th century Syriac Christian merchants from Persian (Sassanian) Mesopotamia who settled in the Chera Empire’s capitol city of Kodungallur (some scholars suggest however this migration possibly occurred between the 7th-9th century). These migrants are by tradition Syriac Christians of Jewish origin and for this reason are often called Jewish-Christians. The community was led by the merchant Knai Thoma (Thomas of Cana) as well as the bishop Uraha Mar Yoseph and were given land on the southern portion of Kodungallur and for that reason were also known as Thekkumbhagar in Malayalam meaning Southist or Southerners.
This is in contrast to the majority of native Christians in Kerala or the St. Thomas Christians who were known by the ethno-geographical designation Vadakkumbhagar or Northist because it is believed they initially resided on the Northern side of Kodungallur. Knai Thoma is noted to have received the Knai Thoma Cheppedu, an Indian copper-plate grant which gave social, economic, and religious rights to Thoma and his people.
Source-work on the Knanaya
For some clarification on the communities history, shared below are quotes from a few prominent sources:
The Oxford History of the Christian Church states the following about the Knanaya:
• “In time, Jewish Christians of the most exclusive communities descended from settlers who accompanied Knayil Thomma (Kanayi) became known as ‘Southists’ (Tekkumbha ̄gar/Knanaya)…They distinguished between themselves and ‘Northists’ (Vatakkumbha ̄gar). The ‘Northists’, on the other hand, claimed direct descent from the very oldest Christians of the country, those who had been won to Christ by the Apostle Thomas himself. They had already long inhabited northern parts of Kodungallur. They had been there even before various waves of newcomers had arrived from the Babylonian or Mesopotamian provinces of Sassanian Persia.”
Encyclopedia Britannica by Historian Dr. Robert Eric Frykenberg:
• “Among waves of Christian refugees who later settled on the Malabar Coast was a community of 400 Syriac speaking Jewish-Christian families from Uruhu, near Babylon. That community—traditionally said to have been led by Thomas Kināyi (also called Thomas of Cana), a merchant-warrior; Uruhu Mar Yusuf, a bishop; and four pastors—settled on the south bank of the Periyar River….The exclusive“Southists” (Tekkumbhagar), as distinct from the older “Northists” (Vatakkumbhagar), blended Christian faith and Hindu culture with Syriac doctrine, ecclesiology, and ritual. The local social status of the Southists paralleled that of elite Brahman and Nayar castes in Kerala.”
The Encyclopedia of Christianity Vol. 5 by scholar Ernst Fahlbusch:
• “There is a distinct ethnic community known as the Southist, or Knanaya. It’s origins have been traced to a group of 72 Jewish-Christian families who immigrated to India from Mesopotamia in the year 345 A.D. The descendants of these ancient immigrants, who are endogamous and now number about 300,000, have their own diocese…”
The Knanaya Copper Plates
Similar to other merchant magnates such as Sabrisho who received the Kollam Copper Plates (9th Century) and Joseph Rabban who received the Jewish Copper Plates (11th Century), Knai Thoma received a copper plate grant from the Chera Dynasty of Kodungallur. During the 16th and 17th centuries, a number of colonial officials noted the existence of the Knai Thoma Cheppedu. According to these records the plates were in the possession of Mar Yaqob Abuna, an East Syriac bishop of Kodungallur in the 16th century. Mar Yaqob later gave the plates to the Portuguese for safe keeping, who in turn archived them at the Portuguese Factory of Cochin. Portuguese sources later state that in the late 16th century the plates went missing from their factory. According to the writings of Archbishop Francisco Ros in 1604, the plates were taken by the Franciscan Order to Portugal who only left a written copy in Kerala. Produced below are the primary sources that give witness to these copper plate:
– Portuguese Treasurer Damio De Goes: Cronica Do Felicissimo Rei D.Manuel. (1566).- Jesuit Priest Fr. Francis Dionisio: “On the Christians of St. Thomas” (1578). Published in Documenta Indica. Vol XII. Fr. Wicki S.J.- Augustinian Priest Fr. Antonio De Gouvea: Jornada do Arcebispo Goa Dom Frey Alexyo de Menezes. (1606).- Jesuit Bishop Francisco Ros: MS.ADD. 9853. (1604). British Museum Library.- Portuguese Historian Diogo Do Couto: Decadas da Asia. Decada XII. Book III. (1611).
Knai Thoma Mentioned on the Kollam Copper Plates
In the 9th century, the Syrian merchant Sabrisho (Mar Sapor Iso) arrived in Kollam and received the Tarisapally Sassanam or Kollam Syrian Plates. It is interesting to note that two translations of the Kollam Copper Plates, one made by Syrian Christian priest Itti Mani (1601) and another by French Indologist A.H. Duperron (1758) both note that one of the Kollam plates mentioned a brief of the arrival of Knai Thoma to Kerala. Scholars have for many years assumed that this mention was a notation of the previous rights granted to the Christians of Kerala through Knai Thoma. In the modern age, this mention of Knai Thoma is not seen in the existing Kollam Plates, however scholars have expressed that the current Kollam Plates are not all original but are later plates re-engraved due to wear (a common practice in copper plate maintenance). Most recently Hungarian scholar Istvan Perczel published research on the Knai Thoma and Kollam Copper Plates in which he mentioned the notation of Knai Thoma on the Tarisapally Cheppedu. Exhibited below is a citation for the work of scholar Istvan Perczel:
King, Daniel, ed. (2018). The Syriac World. Routledge Press.
A Note on the Epithet “Cana”
It should be noted that Thoma’s epithet “Cana” is a misnomer first introduced by the French historian Maturin Veyssière La Croze in the 18th century and largely accepted by European historians, as well as some native scholars. For this reason Knai Thoma became Thomas of “Cana” particularly in third-party source work. In reality however the epithet Cana is not found anywhere in the culture of the Knanaya nor the common parlance of the people of Kerala. Thomas the merchant leader has two epithet’s in the traditions and history of Kerala:
Knanaya/Kinan Thoma: Thomas Canaanite (Knanaya), sometimes simply stated Thomas Canaan (Kinan). These forms are both from the Syriac Kna’n (Canaan) and it’s adjectival form Knā’nāya (Canaanite). This form is also recorded in Colonial Era source work as Cananeo (Canaanite).
Knai: This second epithet written most commonly as Knai (pronounced as Kanayi) is believed to be a corruption from the Syriac term Knayil meaning merchant. Contemporary scholars suggest the possibility that this could be in relation to the historical Syriac Christian center of Kynai in Bet Armaye, Persia. Colonial researchers sometimes wrote this form as Qinai.
The Spread of Syriac Christianity in Global Context
A little known fact is that historically Syriac Christianity not only reached southern India but as far as Central Asia and China in which local peoples adopted the religion in the Medieval Era. The Chinese stele known as the Xi’an Stele (781 C.E.) is a living testament to the far reach of Syriac Christianity. The stele is written in Syriac and Chinese and notes the existence of Syriac Christian communities in China. If Syriac Christians were able to reach as far as China in the medieval era, the arrival of the Knanites to a region as close as India from Mesopotamia is unquestionable.
Sources on the Xi’an Stele of China:
Carus, Paul; Wylie, Alexander; Holm, Frits (1909), The Nestorian Monument: An Ancient Record of Christianity in China. The Open Court Publishing Company.
The Syriac Christian Churches of the Middle East, particularly the Church of the East (colloquially called the Nestorian Church), had a golden age during this time where their religion was spread far and wide throughout Asia. The Knanaya and St. Thomas Christians are large surviving communities of this religious proliferation in India.
Foreign communities arriving to the South Indian state of Kerala was actually a very common sight during the medieval era. The reason for this is because of the lucrative black pepper trade which was centered and native to Kerala itself. Because of this economic feature, you had not only Syrian Christian merchants but also Syrian and Yemenite Jews, and Muslims from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea arrive to the spice trading port cities of historical Kerala. It is for this reason that Kerala still in contemporary times is rather unique in its ethno-religious demography being the only Indian state to have nearly a 20% Christian and 20% Muslim population.
Relics of the Knanaya Community
There are a few examples of pre-colonial era relics of the Knanaya surviving in physical form today. Examples of such are two stone crosses exhibited in St. Mary’s Knanaya Church, Kottayam. The crosses are dated to the medieval era (one between the 6th and 8th century and the other to the 10th century) and include inscriptions in the Pahlavi and Syriac languages. It should be noted that St. Thomas Christian churches too have similar stone crosses (there are five in total in Kerala). This again exemplifies the antiquity of Syriac Christianity in Kerala.
The inscriptions state the following:
• “In punishment by the cross (was) the suffering on this one; He who is true God and God above, and Guide ever Pure.”
• “My Lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras son of Chaharbukht the Syrian, who cut this “
– Translation by the Archeological Director of India, Arthur Coke Burnell (1876)
Colonial Notations on the Knanaya
Besides their traditional history and relics, notations on the Knanaya were made by a number of colonial officials, clergy, and researchers. A few examples are seen in the following works:
Catholic bishop of Portuguese India Francis Ros, 1603–1604
• “So that, already long before the coming of the said Thomas Caneneo; there were St. Thomas Christians in this Malavar, who had come from Mailapur, the town of St. Thomas. And the chief families are four in number: Cotur, Catanal, Onamturte, Narimatan, which are known today among all these Christians, who became multiplied and extended throughout the whole of this Malavar, also adding to themselves some of the gentiles who would convert themselves.”
• Francis Ros SJ. Report on the Serra, British Museum Library, M.S. Add. 9853, f. 88r, (S.K. p.18).
Archbishop Francis Ros here explains that before the coming of Knai Thoma there already existed in India the St. Thomas Christians. The St. Thomas Christians are in all accounts considered the first Christians of India whereas the Knanaya are considered later migrants.
Historian of Portuguese India Diogo Do Couto, 1611
• “From the people who had come with him [Knai Thoma] preceded the Christians of Diapmer, Kottayam, and Kaduthuruthy, who without doubt are Armenians by caste, and their sons too the same because they had brought their wives”
• Diogo Do Couto. Decada XII, Book III, Chapter 5 (1611)
Do Couto here gives a little more history on the Knanaya expanding on the fact that these migrants later settled in the regions of Udiamperoor, Kottayam, and Kaduthuruthy in central Kerala. It should be noted that the usage of the term “Armenian” here is not in reference to the modern day state of Armenia but instead the historical Kingdom of Armenia. Some European writers tended to label all Middle Eastern Christians as Armenians irregardless of their actual background whether it be Syriac, Maronite, etc.
The St. Thomas Christians too historically viewed the arrival of Knai Thoma and his party as an important event in the history of Kerala Christianity. There was in fact a mutual respect for each Christian communities leaders (the Knanaya too gave reverence to St. Thomas the Apostle, elements of which are heavily examined in their culture). The following are native Christian sources from the 18th Century on the arrival of Knai Thoma and his party:
Mar Thoma IV, Leader of the Malankara Church (1721):
• “…From this date (A.D. 52) the faithful diminished little by little in our country. At that time St. Thomas appeared to Joseph of Edessa [Uraha Mar Yoseph] and said to him: ‘Wilt thou not help India?’ And he also appeared to Abgar, the King…three hundred and thirty-six families under the leadership of Thomas of Cana, the Canaanite from Canaan, which is Jerusalem, migrated to India. They inhabited Cranganore, by the special permission of King Cheraman Perumal in A.D. 345”
• Primary Source: Mar Thoma IV. (1721).“Letter of Mar Thoma IV to Dutch Scholar Charles Schaf”.
Mar Ouseph Cariattil, Leader of the Syrian Catholics (1774):
• “Those known as the Christians of St. Thomas in Malabar had preserved from the year 52 of the popular era for seven entire centuries. After that failing the succession of bishops, began a decadence of religion. However, this defect was remedied by a rich liberal merchant and zealous catholic Knai Thoma, who returning in haste to Babylonia, his native country, brought with him a bishop and two priests of laudable behavior and great learning of Syriac and Chaldean, which are the languages of the Rite of the people of Malabar. They worked with great zeal, and very soon they made the ancient virtues and fervor of Christian religion reflourish. These (as the first apostles) helped the nation in everything pertaining to ecclesiastical discipline and sciences. And therefore, the nation always considered the Babylonians as their benefactors. In these circumstances due to the want of the natives, during the following centuries the bishops from Babylonia governed the churches with no vested interest, they are being, as we said, of the same Rite.”
• Primary Source: Dr. Joseph Cariattil. (1774). “Historia Verdadeira da Christindade de S.Thome Apostolo no Malabar”.
Scholar Placid J. Podipara
• “The Thomas Christians hail the Apostle St. Thomas as the founder of their Church…The first converts of St. Thomas were reinforced by local conversions and by Christian colonizations (migrations) from abroad. Connected with the IV century colonization is the origin of those called the Southists”
• Podipara, Placid (1971). The Varthamanappusthakam. Pontifcal Oriental Institute. ISBN 978-81-2645-152-4
Third parties during the later colonial era too regularly wrote about the Knanaya community as well as their tradition of origin which can be seen in the following examples:
Roman Catholic Bishop Leonardo Mellano, 1887
• “They are divided into two castes or classes, i.e., the Northists and the Southists, in the Malabarian language called Vadaquenbattucar and Thequenbattucar. The first ones are spread in the whole mission and are very numerous…The second ones claim that their ancestors have come from Chaldea [Mesopatamia]… From their appearance and from their customs certainly it must be said that they are descendants of foreigners and of another caste.”
• Letter of Leonard Mellano. 1887 (ACO, Acta 20 (1889) 14, f. 285 dated 24th October 1887.
Scholar Edgar Thurston, 1909
“At their wedding feasts, the Southerners sing songs commemorating their colonization at Kodungallur, their dispersion from there, and settlement in different places. They still retain some foreign tribe names, to which the original colony is said to have belonged. A few of these names are Baji, Kojah, Kujalik, and Majamuth.”
•Edgar Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, VI, Government Press, Madras 1909, p. 414
The Knanaya maintain a unique culture which is a blend of Syriac, Hindu, and Jewish-Christian heritage and is especially noted during their weddings which feature many intricate rituals and traditions. The culture of the community has been analyzed by a number of scholars who note that it is strikingly correlated to Indian Jewish communities such as the neighboring Cochin Jews of Kerala. Comparative cultural studies into the Knanaya have been led by a number of Jewish scholars seen in the works below.
• Gamliel, Ophira (April 2009). Jewish Malayalam Women’s Songs (PDF) (PhD). Hebrew University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 March 2017. Retrieved 2 October 2018.
• Jussay, P. M. (2005). The Jews of Kerala. Calicut: Publication division, University of Calicut.
• Weil, Shalva (1982). “Symmetry between Christians and Jews in India: The Cananite Christians and Cochin Jews in Kerala”. Contributions to Indian Sociology.
Like other migrant communities of India, the culture of the community is also highly inculturated with local Hindu tradition and custom, representing the centuries the Knanaya have lived as a minority community in India.
The Knanaya also maintain a unique set of a traditional songs some of which record events of the late medieval era. The songs were first written down on palm-leave manuscripts in the 17th century and were transcribed in Old Malayalam (the local language of Kerala pre-dating its modern form). The text of the songs also include Syriac, Tamil, and Sanskrit diction and lexemes indicating their antiquity. Many themes of Middle Eastern Syriac and Jewish-Christianity are regularly presented in the songs, such as mentions of the Syriac Christian centers of Uraha (Edessa) and the city of Orosilam (Jerusalem).
Examples of Syriac terms found in the songs include the following:
– Maran: Meaning Lord, a term referencing Christ as Lord- Alaha: Meaning God, a term referencing God the Father – Martha: Meaning Lady, a term generally in reference to St. Mary – Mamdana: Meaning Baptist, often in reference to the New Testament figure John the Baptist.- Mamodisa: Meaning Baptism, in reference to the sacrament of baptism.
Furthermore the songs are also highly representative of the Hindu culture of Kerala, with many songs including Hindu cultural and religious themes. An example of this is the Knanaya wedding song Maran Arul (The Lord Proclaimed) which is a rendition of the creation of the first man Adam. Adams creation includes aspects of Krishna’s birth and the song itself is correlated to the Hindu poem Krishnagatha of the 15th century. In this way, though the Knanaya are considered the descendants of foreigners, they are also highly inculturated with the Hindu culture of Kerala. This ideal seems to be a common theme in the culture of foreign communities of India such as the Cochin Jews and Parsis.
In the modern age, the Knanaya are found among Kottayam Knanaya Catholic Archdiocese (Syro Malabar Eastern Catholic Church) and Chingavanam Knanaya Jacobite Archdiocese (Syriac Orthodox Church) in Kerala, India. Migrant communities have also formed across the globe in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.–
Tobin B. Thomas, M.A.
Teacher, AP Art History and World Geography
Lamar Consolidated Independent School District