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Know your own Church

The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, also known as the Indian Orthodox Church, is an autocephalous Oriental Orthodox Church. This Church was founded by St. Thomas, the apostle of Jesus Christ. The primate of this Church is ‘His Holiness the Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan’ who is also the spiritual, temporal and ecclesiastical head of the Church. The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has parishes within India and across the world, tracing its origin to the first century evangelical activity of St. Thomas, the apostle.

Historically, the Saint Thomas Christians were united in leadership and liturgy, being part of the Church of the East centered in Persia. During the 16th century, the Portuguese Jesuits attempted to forcefully bring the community into the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. Resentment to these measures led the majority of the community to join the ArchdeaconThomas’, in swearing to never submit to the Portuguese in the Coonan Cross Oath of 1653. The Church that followed Archdeacon Thomas continued as the Malankara Church. Following the arrival of the Bishop Gregorios Abdul Jaleel of Jerusalem, Archdeacon Thomas forged a relationship with the Syrian Orthodox Church and gradually adopted West Syrian liturgy and practices. The 19th century witnessed the formation of the Marthoma Church from the flock of the Malankara Church under the influence of the Anglican missionaries. By the end of the 19th century, relations between the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchs and the local hierarchy soured, particularly after Patriarch Ignatius Peter IV (1872 – 1894) began demanding registered deeds for the transfer of properties. In 1912, the Patriarch Ignatius Abdul Massiah consecrated H.G. Murimattathil Paulose Mar Ivanios as Catholicos of the East with the name ‘Baselios Paulose I’.

The Church is theologically and traditionally a part of the Oriental Orthodox communion of Churches. The Indian Orthodox Church accepts the Alexandrian Christology, as does the Coptic Orthodox Church, and uses the Malankara Rite – a local variant of the West Syrian Rite.

History: Upto 17th century

St. Thomas, the Apostle, is credited by tradition for founding the Indian Church in A.D. 52. The local Church maintained its autonomous character under its local leader. The Church in Kerala was an administratively independent community until the Portuguese established themselves in India during the 16th century. Following the arrival of Vasco de Gama in 1498, the Portuguese came to South India and established their political power in the region. They encouraged missionaries to carry out evangelistic work in order to establish Churches in communion with Rome under the Portuguese patronage.

The missionaries were eager to bring the Indian Church under the authority of the Pope. They succeeded in their efforts in 1599 at the Synod of Diamper. The representatives from various parishes attending the assembly were forced by the Portuguese authorities into accepting the Papal authority. Following the synod, the Indian Church was governed by Portuguese prelates. They were generally unwilling to respect the integrity of the local Church. This evoked great dissatisfaction within the Malankara Church which gave rise to a revolt in 1653 leading to the historic event of ‘The Coonan Cross Oath’. This event demanded autonomy for the local Church. Since the local Church had no bishop, it had to undergo severe hardships. It appealed to several eastern christian Churches for assistance and help during this crisis. Responding to the appeal, the Antiochene Syrian Patriarch sent Metropolitan Mar Gregorios of Jerusalem to India in 1665. He confirmed Mar Thoma I as the bishop and worked together with him inorder to organize the Church. Until 1599, the Malankara Church depended on the prelates of the Assyrian (Persian) Church to ordain its own priests.

Reign of the Marthoma Metropolitans (1653–1816)

In 1653, following the Coonan Cross Oath the Malankara Church felt the need to have an indigenous bishop. The parish elders (Idavaka Mooppens) of the Church met together and elected Archdeacon Thomas as their leader. This was followed by a general meeting at Aalangad on 22nd May 1653 where Archdeacon Thomas was elevated to the status of bishop with the title Mar Thoma I by laying on of hands of 12 leading priests of the Church.

The other section of Christians under the Roman Catholic Church did not consider Mar Thoma I as a bishop due to the nature of his ordination and many of the revolters returned to the Roman Catholic Church between 1653 and 1665 as a result of the proselytization efforts of the Carmelite missionaries sent by Rome. To confirm this rank, the Metropolitan along with the leaders of the Church wrote letters to the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch to send a higher authority to assist in the same. At the end of a twelve year long period of no response from any of the Churches, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem – ‘Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel’ arrived in India in the year 1665. After having understood the situation of the Malankara Church, he regularised the consecration of Mar Thoma I. This started the reign of the Mar Thoma Metropolitans of the Pakalomattom family in Malankara.

After the reign of Marthoma IX, the Metropolitans of the Church came from different families. Now they were more popularly known with the title Malankara Metropolitan than as Mar Thoma. Malankara Metropolitans started to be recognised by the secular rulers of Travancore and Cochin kingdoms by a Royal Proclamation. Nevertheless, the title Marthoma continues to be used by the Catholicos of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.

19th century

In 1795, the British captured the region of Malabar in Kerala. In 1806, Rev. Claudius Buchanan – an Anglican priest visited the ancient Church of St. Thomas in India. The Malankara Church opened a seminary at Kottayam in March 1815 and no sooner the Anglican missionaries joined the institution the very next year. However, the missionaries began to impose Protestant doctrines on the seminarians which resulted in the Malankara Church discontinuing its association with the missionaries.

This gave rise to the division of the community into three bodies:

  • One of them set out to bring about major reforms in the liturgy and practices of the Church, but failed. After about half a century of conflict within the Church, this body moved out of the Malankara Church and organized itself as the Marthoma Church.
  • A smaller body of the Malankara Church opted to join with the missionaries and got itself absorbed into the Anglican Church.
  • A large majority of the community continued as the Malankara Orthodox Church without accepting the reforms.

20th century

In 1912, the Catholicate of the East was revived in India. The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church wanted to retain its autocephalous nature and thus appealed the same to Patriarch Ignatius Abdul Massiah II of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The Patriarch consented and consecrated Murimattathil Paulose Mar Ivanios as Baselios Paulose I, Catholicos of the East. In 1912, the consecration ceremony was held at St. Mary’s Church at Niranam – the church established by St. Thomas, the apostle.


Hierarchy and doctrine

The spiritual head of the Church is the Catholicos of the East and the temporal head over Church assets is the Malankara Metropolitan. Since 1934, both the titles vest in one person. The official title of the head of the Church is “the Catholicos of the East and the Malankara Metropolitan“. The present Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan is His Holiness Moran Mar Baselios Marthoma Paulose II, who was enthroned on 1st November 2010, at Parumala Church by the Holy Episcopal Synod. H. H. Paulose II is the 91st Catholicos of the East in the lineage of the Apostle St. Thomas, the 8th Catholicos after its re-instatement in India and the 21st Malankara Metropolitan.

The Church accepts only the first three Ecumenical Synods like all other Oriental Orthodox Churches. The Church in India was connected to the Church of East through the Catholicos of the East which existed in Edessa, Selucia, Tigris and Mosul during various time periods. Primarily, the Church uses the liturgy of Saint James, as does its sister Church – the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. As of today the Church celebrates liturgy in West Syriac, Malayalam, English, Hindi, Tamil, Konkani and Kannada.

The Church has two theological seminaries located at Kottayam and Nagpur. It has dioceses and churches in most parts of India as well as in nations like the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Western Europe, Africa, Persian Gulf nations, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

In short, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church refers to St. Thomas Christians of India who are in obedience to the Catholicate of the East whose supreme head is His Holiness the Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan with its headquarters at Devalokam in the district of Kottayam situated in the state of Kerala in India.

The Constitution of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church


The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has her own official constitution which was formulated in the year 1934. Every member of the Church including H. H. the Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan, all diocesan metropolitans, the clergy and the laity are bound by the rules and regulations mentioned in the constitution. All the parishes of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church whether in India or in other regions of the world are governed by the constitution.

As the Church had no written constitution until 1934, it was governed by consensus, traditions and precedence. The constitution was presented in the Malankara Christian Association Meeting of 26th December 1934 held at M. D. Seminary at Kottayam following which it was adopted and brought to force. The constitution was amended on three occasions to meet specific situations and needs. Though the validity of the constitution was challenged in the Court, the Supreme Court in its final verdict declared, confirmed and upheld the validity of the constitution. The constitution upholds the autonomous and autocephalous nature of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. The constitution enshrines the fundamental features of the Church, provides direction for its internal administration and preserves its integrity and autonomy. The essential features of the Church are provided in the preamble. The first article emphasizes the relationship between the Church of Syria and Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. The second article highlights the foundation of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church by St. Thomas and the primacy of His Holiness the Catholicos of the East. The third article refers to the name of the Church and the fourth about the faith, traditions and so on. The fifth article deals with the canons governing the administration of the Church. The constitution as a whole conceives the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church as self-sufficient in all her requirements, be it temporal, ecclesiastical or spiritual in nature and upholds that the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church is rightly autocephalous in character.


Since the 17th century, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church uses the Syrian Orthodox Liturgy, which belongs to the Antiochene liturgical tradition. The East Syrian (Persian), Byzantine, Armenian, Georgian, Maronite liturgies also belong to the same liturgical family. In the first half of the 5th century, the Antiochene Church adopted the anaphora of Jerusalem, i.e., the anaphora of St. James, the disciple. During the 4th and 5th centuries, the liturgical language of Jerusalem and Antioch was Greek. Therefore, the original form of the liturgy of St. James was composed in Greek.

Following the Council of Chalcedon (A. D. 451), the Eastern Church was divided into two, one faction accepting the council, while the other opposing it. Both groups continued to use the Greek version of the anaphora of St. James. The Byzantine emperor Justin (518–527) expelled the non-Chalcedonians from Antioch who took refuge in the Syriac speaking Mesopotamia on the Roman-Persian Border (modern Eastern Syria, Iraq and South East Turkey). Gradually, the Antiochene liturgical rites were translated into Syriac. New elements such as Syriac hymns were introduced into it.

Mar Gregorios of Jerusalem came to Malankara in 1665 and introduced Syrian Orthodox liturgical rites. The most striking characteristic of the Antiochene liturgy is the large number of anaphoras (Order of the celebration of the Eucharist) included in it, of which about eighty are known and about a dozen are used in India. All of them have been composed keeping the Liturgy of St. James as a model.

Catholicate of the East

The word “Catholicos” means “The General Head”. It can be considered as equivalent to “Universal Bishop”. There were only three ranks of priesthood in the early Church, viz., Episcopos (Bishop), Priest and Deacon. By the end of the 3rd century, bishops of certain important cities in the Roman empire gained eminence over other bishops and came to be known as Metropolitans. The Ecumenical councils of the 4th century recognized the supreme authority of these Metropolitans. By the 5th century, the bishops in major cities like Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch gained control over the churches in the surrounding cities. Gradually they became the heads of each independent regional Church and were called Patriarch which means common father. The same rank in the Churches outside the Roman Empire was called Catholicos. There have been three ancient Catholicates in the Church before the onset of the fifth century, viz., the Catholicate of the East, the Catholicate of Armenia and the Catholicate of Georgia. None of these ranks and titles has been the monopoly of any particular Church. Any apostolic and national Church has the authority to declare and call its head – Catholicos or Pope or Patriarch.

St. Thomas established the Church in India and is recognized as its first Head or Catholicos.

The reign of the Archdeacons lasted from the 4th century till the 16th century. A renewed chapter began in the history of the Church when the archdeacon was elevated by the community to the position of a Bishop with the name Mar Thoma I in 1653. Since then, the head of the community was the Marthoma Methran whose position evolved into that of the ‘Malankara Metropolitan’ with greater recognition.

In 1912, the Catholicate of the East got relocated to India and His Holiness Moran Mar Baselios Paulose I was enthroned on the Apostolic Throne of St. Thomas as the Catholicos of the East.


Sanctuary of Catholicos

The headquarters of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church got permanently based at Devalokam on 31st December 1951 at Kottayam in Kerala. It is the official headquarters of the Catholicos of the East who reigns on the Supreme Throne of St. Thomas, the Apostle.

The new aramana built in 1961 was inaugurated by the visiting Armenian Catholicos Vazgen I. A portion of the holy relics of St. Thomas, the Apostle, has been kept in the Catholicate Chapel. The mortal remains of His Holiness Moran Mar Baselios Geevarghese II, His Holiness Moran Mar Baselios Augen I, His Holiness Moran Mar Baselios Marthoma Mathews I and Metropolitan Dr. Thomas Mar Makarios are entombed in this Chapel.

The lineage of the Catholicos starts with the Apostle St. Thomas, continuing with the bishops of Edessa and Archbishops in Selucia-Ctesiphon. In A.D. 410, Isaac first used the title Catholicos. Since then, the Catholicos has claimed jurisdiction over all Christians of the East outside the Roman Empire. This Catholicate resided in Persia until the end of the 19th century. In 1912, the senior Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch relocated the Catholicate of the East to India. His Holiness Moran Mar Baselios Marthoma Paulose II is the 91st Catholicos enthroned on the throne of Saint Thomas.

Further Divisions in the West


During the centuries after A.D 1054, the growing distinction between East and West was becoming indelibly marked in the history. The Eastern Church (Both Oriental and Byzantine Orthodox Churches) maintained the full stream of New Testament faith, worship, and practice-all the while enduring great  persecution from both Islamic forces and also from her western counterpart.( See the crusades, I will narrate about crusades latter).The Roman Catholic Church(Western Church) bogged down in many problems. Then, less than five centuries after Rome committed itself to its unilateral alteration of doctrine and practice, another upheaval occurred-this time inside the western gates.


Although many in the west had spoken out against Roman domination and practice in earlier years, now a little-known German monk Martin Luther inadvertently launched an attack against Roman Catholic practices which ended up affecting world history. His list of Ninety Five Thesis was nailed to the Church door at Wittenberg in 1517, signaling the start of what came to be called the protestant Reformation. Luther had intended no break in Rome, but he could not be reconciled to its papal system of government as well as other doctrinal issues. He was excommunicated in 1521, and the door to future unity in the West slammed shut with a resounding crash.


The reforms Luther sought in Germany were soon accompanied by demand of Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, John Calvin in Geneva, and hundreds of others all over Western Europe. Fueled by complex political, social, and economic factors in addition to the religious problems, the Reformation spread like a ranging fire into virtually every nook and cranny of Roman Catholic Church. The ecclesiastical monopoly to which it had grown accustomed was greatly diminished, and massive division replaced unity. The ripple effect of that division impacts even today as the Protestant movement continues to split.


If trouble on the European continent were not trouble enough, the Church of England was in a process of going its own way as well. Henry VIII, amidst his marital problems, replaced the Pope of Rome with himself as head of the Church of England. As a decade followed decade in the West, the branches of Protestantism continued to divide. There were even branches that insisted they were neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic. All seemed to share a mutual dislike for the Bishop of Rome and the practices of his Church, and most wanted far less centralized forms of leadership. While some, such as the Lutherans and Anglicans, held on to certain forms of liturgy and sacrament, others, such as the Reformed Churches and the even more radical Anabaptists and their descendants, questioned and rejected many ideas of hierarchy, sacrament, historic tradition, thinking they were freeing themselves of only Roman Catholicism. To this day, many sincere, modern, professing Christians will reject even the biblical data that speaks of historic practices are “Roman Catholic”. To use the old adage, they threw the baby out with the bathwater without even being aware of it.


Thus, while retaining in varying degrees portions of foundational Christianity, neither Protestantism nor Catholicism can lay historic claim to being the true New Testament Church. In dividing from the Orthodox Christianity (Eastern Christianity), Rome forfeited its place in the Church of the New Testament. In the divisions of the Reformation, the Protestants-as well-meaning as they might have been –failed to return to the New Testament Church.