R Masakui | Christianity in India: A testimony of cultural diversity
I often refer to India as a ‘mosaic’ as opposed to a ‘melting pot’, for each ethnicity, language, religion, and tribal group has maintained, even strengthened, its distinct cultural identity in the seven decades since Independence. At the risk of stretching the analogy, Christians form one of the most distinct segments of this vivid Indian mosaic.
Not many know that Christianity in India is as old as Christ himself. Even before his time, the Arabs and other ancient maritime traders had settled in the southern Indian state of Kerala to trade in spices. Legend has it that Apostle Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus, according to the New Testament, travelled to India to preach the Gospel in 52 CE, around 2,000 years ago. His sermons became popular, and he gained quite a few adherents in present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu, referred to this day as Thomas Christians. To put this in perspective, the first European region to accept Christianity was Armenia in 301 CE, a whole 250 years after India. Apostle Thomas died in 72 CE and the St Thomas Cathedral Basilica in present-day Chennai is believed to have been built over his tomb. The famous Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, also visited the church in 1327 CE and confirmed the tomb of St Thomas. Therefore, the popular perception that Christianity was brought by the European colonialists is completely misplaced.
Christianity came to India, not once, but in waves. In 1498, the famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed to the southern Indian state of Kerala to open the first Europe-India sea route. What followed him were priests and chaplains who introduced the Latin or the Roman Catholic rite. It was followed by the arrival of missionaries from several countries of Europe professing different denominations in the next four centuries. The American missionaries frequented India in the 20th century. The community was split, resplit, changed, reformed, reinvented itself and moved on.
Unlike other regions of India, the spread of Christianity in Central and North-East India has been fairly recent. The work of the Western Christian Missionaries among tribal groups, particularly in education and health sectors, aided by the British administrators, played a major role in the spread of Christianity. The spread continued even after Independence, with the result that the region has one of the largest concentrations of Christian populations anywhere in India. Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jesuit, Adventist, and many other denominations are represented here. The customs brought by missionaries have intermingled with the original tribal traditions and those of the communities practising Hinduism and Islam, resulting in a rather unique blend. For example, many villages in Central and East India have statues of Mother Mary wearing tribal clothes. Similarly, prayers are exhorting the ideals of saints in the mould of Hindu devotional songs.
INTERTWINED WITH INDIAN CULTURE
The Christian traditions have intertwined so beautifully with the Indian cultural rainbow that it is difficult to make out where one ends and where the other begins. The spread of Christianity in India largely occurred without animosity and bloodshed. The king in Tamil Nadu was said to frequent St Thomas sermons. Even though Mughal Emperor Akbar was a Muslim, he called two Christian priests of the Jesuit order to his court in 1579 and donated land for building a church. Similarly, many local Indian rulers helped build the early churches by the Portuguese and other Europeans. Christmas is a joyous occasion all over India, irrespective of faith or religion. Christians participate in the celebrations of other religions in India. It is important to understand that the sole aim of most missionaries in India was never the spread of Christianity alone, but the upliftment of the people and the service of the masses. In fact, it was this selfless service that attracted people to Christianity. The missionary schools and hospitals in India are frequented by one and all and are rated highly. It is this sense of service that Mother Teresa, a saint who donated her life for working for those affected with HIV, leprosy, and tuberculosis, is revered by followers of all religions in India and not by Christians alone.
The diversity within Christianity in India is also reflected in the Church architecture. The St Thomas Church in Kerala is the first church of India and is believed to have been built by St Thomas himself in 52 AD. One of the most famous churches is the St Thomas Cathedral Basilica in Chennai, built in 1523 by Portuguese explorers, over the tomb of Saint Thomas. It was rebuilt by the British in 1896 in the Neo-Gothic style. The Velankanni Church in Tamil Nadu is one of the most beautiful churches in India. Referred to as the Lourdes of the East and raised to the status of ‘Basilica’ by the Pope in 1962, this Roman Catholic church is frequented by around 20 million people annually. The Santa Cruz Basilica in Kochi has frescoes in the columns with seven huge canvas paintings and stained-glass windows. The 400-year-old Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Tourists from all over the world come to see its baroque architecture. The stained-glass windows and the beautiful wooden interiors of the All-Saints Church in Coonoor take you back to the British colonial era. Visiting St Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata during Christmas is on the bucket list of many believers and tourists. Built by the Britishers in an Indo-Gothic style, this church is one of the old surviving churches in India.
The famous American writer Mark Twain once said, “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition”. Suffice to say that Christianity has an invaluable contribution to this glorious history, legend, and history that Mark Twain was referring to. Christianity has found a home in India, like numerous others that were born here or travelled from other lands, and will continue to spread the message of peace, justice, and integrity. And this has become possible because Indians are ‘seekers’ of knowledge in addition to being believers. The basis of the country’s psyche is best reflected in a quote from the three-millennium old Hindu scripture Rig Veda, ‘Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah’ meaning, ‘let noble thoughts come to me from all directions’. This acceptance of different points of view also explains the diversity of the Christian faith in India. Coming back to the analogy I started with, if India were a mosaic, then Christianity in India would be best described as a ‘mosaic within a mosaic’.
- R. Masakui is the high commissioner of India to Jamaica. Send feedback to email@example.com.