Roy P. Thomas, MD
"How did you end up with a name like " Thomas? "
"When did you change to an American name?"
"What was your former Hindu name?"
I had to answer these questions umpteen times, ever since I landed in America 30 years ago.
first I have to tell that Thomas is not an American name. The first
doubting Thomas was not an American, but a Jew from Palestine.
It is true that the doubting apostle was THOMA which when anglicized became Thomas. In the same way Mathai became Mathew, Yohannan became John, and Maria became Mary.
St. Mary called her first-born son Yeshu that in English became Jesus for the convenience of the Anglo-Saxon tongue.
Tommy, Tom, Tim etc. in America and Thommy, Thommen, Oommen etc. in Kerala are all variations of the original THOMA.
I explain to the questioner that my family's association with the name
Thomas goes back about 1,950 years, I have to tell him a family story
grandfather told me this story, which was told to him by his
grandfather, and his grandfather probably received it from his
grandfather. So the story is passed on in our family from generation to
generation as an oral tradition.
on I did some reading and research about the story and found that there
are many things that support the oral tradition in our family. There
are about 6 million St. Thomas Christians in India and many of them
have similar stories from their forefathers with only slight
This is the story of our family.
The year was 52 AD and the place was a small village in the northern part of Kerala named Palayur.
Those days Palayur was a traditional bastion of conservative Hindus. A
small group of Jews lived nearby in a hilly place and they had a
morning four Brahmin Hindu priests were conducting their ritualistic
sun worship in the temple pond. They were from the four well known
families of the area, Kadappu, Kalikavu (Kaliyankal), Shankuthiri, and Pakalomittom.
They were standing half immersed in water and sprinkling water upwards chanting Vedic mantras to the sun god.
a Jewish ascetic came and stopped near where they were worshipping. He
was a visitor to the nearby synagogue and came from Jerusalem recently.
The local Jews accompanied him.
visitor asked though his interpreter, what was going on. After getting
their explanation he commented that it seemed the sun god was not
accepting their offering, because the water fell back to the pond when
they threw it up as an offering.
Hindu priests asked what could happen differently. Then the visiting
Jewish holy man told them that he could throw the water as a
supplication to the living God who is the creator of sun and all the
other celestial stars, and his God would accept it.
the priests gave permission, he got down to the pond and worshipped God
in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then threw the water
up in to the air, and to all present it seemed the water drops remained
suspended in the air.
visitor explained to the Hindu priests that he was Thomas, one of the
Disciples of Christ. He further told them that Jesus was the
incarnation of God, the father.
The convinced priests accepted baptism from the hands of the Apostle.
My grandfather had told me that our family is the direct descendents of the second Brahmin priest in the above story, the Kalikavu.
are thousands of other Christian families in Kerala claiming to be the
descendents of each of these four Brahmins. According to this
tradition, Christianity came to Kerala before it reached Europe or even
In the 4th century, these families moved to another village, 200 miles south of Palayur to a village called Kuravilagad. St. Thomas had ordained
some priests from these families. In the following years due to lack
of scriptural books and the absence of connection to an Apostolic See,
these groups of Christians went through a difficult period.
In 354 AD, a bishop Mar Joseph and 72 other Christian families under the leadership of a merchant named Thomas of Cana emigrated to Kerala from Mesopotamia and Jerusalem. Thomas of Cana (
where Jesus turned water into wine) was said to be a blood relative of
Jesus. This immigration was a great revitalization for the local
Christians. These 72 families were Jewish Christians, and their
descendents to this day live in Kerala. They keep a separate identity
from all other communities in Kerala. They are known as Kanaya Christians and are fiercely ethnic and practice endogamy.
of Kerala converted by St. Thomas accepted the Syriac (Aramaic) liturgy
from this newly arrived group and apostolic benediction from the
Patriarch of Antioch. Hence, the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala are
also known as Syrian Christians of Kerala. Syriac- Aramaic was the
language spoken at the time of Jesus Christ in Palestine and it was
also the lingua franca for communication among many nations of the
East. Even today Syrian Christians use this language in parts of their
In ancient manuscripts the Christian community in Kerala is sometimes referred to as Nazaranis, meaning the followers of Jesus who was from Nazareth. Foreign travelers have also called them, Malabar Christians, as the coastal region of Kerala is called Malabar. Malankara is another name for the coast.
How reliable is St. Thomas tradition, and the story of conversion of my ancestors?
The tradition is that the apostle first landed in Kodungalore
on the west coast of Kerala in 52 AD. His first followers were some of
the local Jews and then a few of the indigenous people. He traveled
south establishing 7 churches in Kerala. He continued his missionary
journey to Malacca and China. He returned to India and was martyred in
72 A.D in Madras where his tomb still remains.
historians think that the ancient Jews of Kerala were the descendents
of Jews taken in captivity by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Later
when Cyrus, the king of Persia conquered Babylon he released the Jews,
and some of them came to Kerala in 585 BC. There is enough evidence of
a large Jewish colony in Kerala in the 1st century AD and there existed
a continuous flow of trade between the Middle East and Kerala making
the journey of the Apostle possible. Some of the early Christian
converts of Kerala were probably from this Jewish community.
visit of St. Thomas to India is mentioned by many early church
historians and also in the apocryphal book ' Acts of St. Thomas '
written by the Syrian Bardisan. (152-220 AD). Pantaenus, the governor
of the school of faithful of Alexandria visited these Christians in 185
AD and left some references in his writings.
Also, the presence of the Kanaya Christian
community whose records indicate that their ancestors met St. Thomas
Christians when they came to Kerala's shores in 345 AD is another
In 552 AD, Cosmas Indicopleustus visited Kerala's coast and wrote about the presence of a Christian community there.
1292, the famous Venetian traveler Marco Polo made the following
interesting observation after a visit to the St. Thomas tomb in Madras.
Christians come here on pilgrimages from many places and gather some of
the soil from this place where the Saint was killed, and this soil they
take away with them to their countries. Now, if anyone falls ill of a
tertian ague, or any other fever of any
they give him a portion made of this soil. As soon as the sick man
drinks it, he is well again." Marco Polo further attests that he
himself took some of this soil to Venice and cured many people.
(Travels of Marco Polo by L.F. Benedetto translated by Aldo Ricci).
this treatment is not available at present at the St. Thomas' tomb, it
is a revered center of pilgrimage and still annually attracts thousands
from all around the world.
the same year 1292, the Italian missionary priest John of Monte
Corvino, who was a special representative of Pope Nicholas IV visited
Kerala Christians on his way to China and stayed with them for 6
months. He writes that he was quite surprised because these Christians
had never heard about the Pope. Their allegiance was to the church of
Persia and Antioch.
ancient inscribed copper plates in the possession of Kerala Christians
and another copy of a copper plate kept in Cambridge museum in England
are further proof of the antiquity of this community.
Let me continue the story of my ancestors. converted by St. Thomas in the Palayur village ,and later moved to the village of Kuravilagad in the 4th century.
In Kuravilagad, they built a church with the assistance from the local ruler in 350 AD. Bishop Joseph who came with the Kana immigrants in 345 AD consecrated this church dedicated to St. Mary.
My Christian ancestors lived in Kuravilagad
and the surrounding areas for another millennium as farmers, merchants,
and professionals, and they were well-respected members of the society.
(It is about them, Gibbon wrote in his ' Decline and fall of Roman Empire '
arms, in arts, and possibly in virtue, they excelled the natives of
Hindustan. Their husbandmen cultivated the palm trees, the merchants
were enriched by pepper trade, and their soldiers preceded the other
nobles of Malabar.")
1498, when Portuguese merchants under the leadership of the great
explorer Vasco Da Gamma came to Kerala, they were happy to see an
indigenous group of Christians. But they soon realized that though
these people were Christians, they were different from the Portuguese
Christians. Portuguese were western Christians of the Latin rite who
followed Pope of Rome.
was the period of inquisition in the Catholic Church and the Portuguese
were very intolerant to other rites. Many local Christians became
unhappy the way the Portuguese treated them, and many moved to the
southern parts of Kerala, to be away from them. Kuravilagad was under the Northern kingdom, which was a protectorate of the Portuguese.
Portuguese bishop of Goa, Dom Menezes came to Kerala in 1599 and from
June 20- 24, he called for a meeting of the Kerala Christians. 153
local priests and 660 lay representatives attended these meetings and
they were forced to accept the supremacy of the Latin Church. This is
the infamous Synod of Diapore in the church history. Syrian
Christians were forced to accept the hegemony of the Roman Church with
the threat from the Portuguese soldiers and the power of the local
king. Menezes visited many Kerala churches and burned much of the
valuable ancient prayer books and other manuscripts because he
considered them heresies.
as Portuguese were soon defeated by the Dutch in the Kerala coast, the
local Christians who were waiting for an opportunity ,revolted against
the Portuguese and the Latin domination of their church. The immediate
provocation was when the Portuguese arrested a Syrian bishop Ahatulla
from the holy land on his way to Kerala and took him to Goa as a
prisoner. Somehow a rumor spread that the Portuguese drowned their
bishop in the sea.
On Friday, January 3, 1653, nearly 20,000 local Christians assembled in Mattachery,
a port city near Cochin. They tied a long rope around a stone cross and
touching the rope in a large human chain they took an oath that they or
their children would never accept Portuguese or Latin hegemony over
their church. This event is known in history as the Oath of Coonan Cross (leaning cross.) The people unanimously elected their Archdeacon Thomas of the Pakalomittom
family as their bishop. Later he was ordained by the visiting Mar
Gregoriose, the bishop of Jerusalem under the Syrian (Jacobite)
Patriarch of Antioch. At that time there were about 200,000 Christians
in Kerala, and only 400 sided with the Portuguese.
Rome reviewed the situation more closely and started a conciliatory
approach towards Syrian Christians. The Pope decreed that those who
wanted could continue to practice the Syrian rite and liturgy. The Pope
also sent an Italian bishop to Kerala and ordained a cousin of Arch
Deacon Thomas from the Pakalomittom family as the first native Catholic bishop of Kerala.
His name was Parampil Chandy Metran,
or Bishop Alexander DeCampo as western historians refer to him. This
caused a large number of rebelling Kerala Syrian Christians to return
to the Roman Catholic Church. So for the first time there were two
divisions with in the Syrian Christians of Kerala, one group following
Rome, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the other following the
Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch.
were several confrontations between these two groups at that time. In
one of those episodes in 1666 when a Portuguese bishop tried to enter
the Kuravalagad Church, it unfortunately turned violent. The local
ruler supported the Roman Catholic faction. The members of the original
4 Christian families were divided between these two factions. The
faction that was rebelling against the papal group left Kuravilagad and
moved further south to the southern kingdom, the Thekencore.
Thomas alias Oommen
was my ancestor on the paternal side who lived 8 generations before me.
He lived during this most turbulent period in the history of our
community in Kerala. He strongly objected the Portuguese hegemony and
the Latinisation of the Indian Church and he participated in Coonan
Cross Oath of 1653. When the majority in his parish church, its vicar,
and many of his relatives took pro- Papal position, Oommen Thomas was
not prepared to compromise on his principles. If he had taken a
position supporting the Portuguese and the Latin missionaries as many
of his family members did, he could have avoided many of the financial
and physical dangers. He even dared to take a position against the
powerful local king. Finally when he found that he couldn't be true to
the faith and traditions of his fathers if he obliged to the Portuguese
power, he left Kuravilagad with a brother and a sister and came to Changanacherry,
a town in central Kerala. It was only a distance of 60 miles, but this
short distance of travel changed the destiny for his descendents.
Chaganachery Oommen lived in a house near the present municipal court
given to him by the Raja of Theckencore. Oommen's brother became a
priest and served the church in Chaganachery. At that time the churches
in Chaganachery and Allepey Thathanpalli were branch churches
(kurushupally) of Niranam church. Later these two churches joined Roman
had two sons, Kuruvilla and Mathen. The second son, Mathen moved to
Thiruvella and became the founding father of the Chalakuzhy family. He
later died in a smallpox epidemic.
The eldest son, Kuruvilla moved to the village of Mepral, 5 miles further south and bought a plot of land, which had a title name Poothicote. This village became our family's home for the next 250 years and Poothicote became our family name ever since.
the past 200 years a few members of our family, like many other Syrian
Christians of Kerala, have also embraced protestant denominations like
the Marthoma Church and the Church of South India (CSI). The family has also members in the Syro- Malabar Catholic Church.
Here, I tried to trace the ancestry on my father's side to the Brahmin from the Kalikavu family baptized by the Apostle St. Thomas. All these are not recorded on stone tablets or written down in history books.
But these oral traditions are more important and precious to a community than anything etched on stone.