St. Thomas Knanaya Church

Knanaya origin

In the year 345 A.D., Knai Thoma, a rich merchant, and 72 families from Edessa (or modern Urfa),  immigrated to Malabar (presently Kerala) and established their colony. In the group there were also priests, deacons and their bishop, Uraha Mor Ouseph (Bishop Joseph of Uraha/Urfa). Knai Thoma and his people were welcomed by Cheraman Perumal, the Emperor of Kerala, and were given permission to settle down in Kodungalloor. They built a town in Kodungalloor with a church and 72 houses. The name "Kodungallur" is supposed to originate from "An Ur of a Kodi Lingams or Town of a thousand Shiva lingams". It is also known as "Mahadevar Pattanam" meaning "town of Lord Mahadeva or Shiva".

K’naneans (Cananaean according to the Gospel of Luke) are a very distinct ethnic and religious group whose ancestry traces back to Abraham, the Patriarch of the Old Testament. The Israelites became slaves in Egypt and God delivered them through Moses. He gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the Holy Laws so as to administer to the needs of the community to lead a very prosperous, religious and civilized life in the land of Canaan. In celebration for having received the Holy Constitution, Moses built a sacrificial altar out of 12 stones and celebrated Mass in honour of God with an animal sacrifice. In order to preserve the sacred constitution, he appointed 72 elders to memorise the Laws and to ensure its preservation and interpretation on behalf of the entire community. He appointed Judges to enforce the Divine Laws while dealing with issues facing the people. He appointed Aaron as the High Priest and the descendants of Levi (Levites) to assist Aaron in the preservation of the sacred scrolls, vessels and other Holy equipments used during the worship of the Almighty. Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron showed his zeal for the Divine Laws during a period of crisis when the Faith of the Israelites were put to test by Balaam. Pleased with his display of zealousness, the Almighty Lord blessed Phinehas and his descendents with an eternal pledge of High Priesthood, just as he was to later bless David and his Descendants with eternal Lordship over the Israelites. The zeal of Phinehas was the inspiration of the later day Zealots (Q'nanaya in Aramaic) beginning with the Maccabean Dynasty in 186 BC.

Twenty years after the Nicean Council (synod), Knai (or Q'nai) Thoma, an influential merchant from Cana, brought a colony of 400 Syrian Christians consisting of 72 families belonging to 7 clans with instructions from the Bishop of Antioch (Antioch had not been declared a Patriarchate then), Mor Eusthathius, to the Malabar coast of India. The group included men, women, children, priests, deacons and their bishop Mor Joseph of Urfa (Uraha/Edessa). The names of the seven clans, according to Mr. E M Philip, were: Bagi, Belkuth, Hadai, Kujalik, Koja, Mugmuth, and Thegmuth. The legend is that Mor Joseph had a startling dream (vision) in which he saw the plight of the Christian church in Malabar established by St. Thomas, the Apostle, in the 1st Century. Meanwhile, Knai Thoma, who frequented the shores of Kodungallur in search of spices and other Indian wealth to be exported back to the World trade ports of Baghdad and Egypt, noticed on the shores of Kodungallur, local men who carried on their bare trunk, crosses to mark their religious beliefs. But they were not of high disposition as they were subjected to persecution by their chaste brethren in lieu of their belief in an unknown and unseen God. Thomas interviewed them and found that they were the descendants of formerly high ranking brahmin families who had accepted the way of the cross as preached by St. Thomas between 52 – 72 AD. He also learnt that the Saint was martyred at the Corromandel coast and they took him along on their annual pilgrimage to Malayattoor and from thence to Mylapore. From them, he learnt that St. Thomas had preached the Word of God in Hebrew and his first converts/disciples were about 500 Jews in Kodungallur, who were well versed in the semitic language of Aramaic as well as could converse in the local dialect of that period with the natives. But after the martyrdom of the Saint, they became orphaned for want of a spiritual guide who could nourish the fledgling Nazarene community.

Mor Joseph (known as Aithlaha according to the Edessene Scrolls) became the Bishop of Edessa in 324 AD, a year before the Synod of Nicea. Mor Aithlaha had the fortune to complete the Eastern side of the Church of Edessa as well as made a cemetery for the Church (the first recorded cemetery for the Christians according to historical records). The original Church of Edessa, the Church of St. Thomas, built around the time he left for India in 52 AD, had been washed away in a great flood in 203 AD during the reign of King Abgar. A second flood washed through Edessa and laid it waste in 303 AD. Ten years later, the foundations of a new Church was laid at Edessa and that was completed in the days of Mor Aithlaha. He took Knai Thoma to the Catholicos of Selucia – Steciphon (modern Baghdad) who was his spiritual superior and who was given temporal power by the Bishop of Antioch to administer to the churches of the Far East. Mor Eustathius was the Bishop of Antioch during this period.

Mor Eustathius, who was Bishop of Berœa in Syria, was transferred to Antioch in 324 AD. He was one of the most prominent opponents of Arianism at the Council of Nicæa in 325 AD and from 325 – 330 he was engaged in a continuous literary warfare against the Arians. He was supported by Mor Ethalaha, the Bishop of Edessa who too attended the Synod. By his fearless denunciation of Arianism and his refusal to engage any Arian priests in his diocese, he incurred the hatred of the Arians, who, headed by Eusebius of Cæsarea and his namesake of Nicomedia, held a synod at Antioch in 331 AD at which Mor Eustathius was accused of Sabellianism, incontinency, cruelty, and other crimes. He was deposed by the synod and banished to Trajanopolis in Thrace by order of the Emperor Constantine. The people of Antioch, who loved and revered their holy and learned Patriarch, became indignant at the injustice done to him and were ready to take up arms in his defence. But Mor Eustathius kept them in check, exhorted them to remain true to the orthodox faith and humbly left for his place of exile, accompanied by a large body of his clergy. The adherents of Mor Eustathius at Antioch formed a separate community by the name of Eustathians and refused to acknowledge the bishops set over them by the Arians. The knanaya zealots of Edessa, led by their Bishop, Mor Joseph (Aithlaha), too were Eustathians, and so when Mor Eustathius was excommunicated, they took a vow never to fall prey to the Arian heresy and their propagandists, which included even the highly placed Bishops who had conducted the Synod at Nicæa.

It was during this period that Thomas of Cana reported the status of the St. Thomas Nazarenes of India to his Bishop. So they consulted with Mor Eustathius and took his blessings to prepare themselves to migrate to India to serve the cause of the St. Thomas converts of India. In 345 AD, Knai Thomas and Mor Joseph (Aithlaha) left Edessa and Aithlaha was succeeded by Mor Abraham. (This succession has been documented in the Edessene Chronicles, which has been preserved and translated by Scholars today). In 373 AD, Edessa was run over by the Arians and the Eustathians had to leave Edessa because of the persecutions of the Arians. Five years later, the Orthodox Christians reclaimed the Church of Edessa. In 393 AD, the coffin (glossocom) of St. Thomas containing the remaining relics was brought to Edessa from India, and placed in the Church built in his name in the days of Mor Cyrus, the Bishop.

The 72 Knanaya zealot families led by Thomas and Mor Joseph landed in Kodungalloor (Crangannoore) in 345 AD. Knai Thoma and his group sailed in three ships. The leading ship called "Babylonia" had three masts. The main mast flew King David's flag, the second mast flew the Roman flag with the cross, and the third flew the Edessene flag. Knai Thoma and his people were heartily welcomed by Cheraman Perumal, the Emperor. Cheraman Perumal sent his brother, Ramavarma, and his minister, Vettathu Mannan, to receive Knai Thoma and his people. Knai Thoma and his people were given permission to settle down in Kodungalloor and to do business. Later Cheraman Perumal bestowed Knai Thoma and his people with 72 princely privileges and thereby elevated them over 17 castes. This proclamation was made on a Saturday in March (Kumbham 29), 345 and it was recorded on copper plates given to Knai Thoma (known later as the 'Knai Thomman Cheppedu'). Knai Thoma and his people built a town in Kodungalloor with a church and 72 houses. The place awarded to the immigrants was at "Mahadevar Pattanam" meaning "Town of Lord Shiva and Parvathi". They were also called Southists (Thekkumbhagar) because they lived on the south side of the Kodungalloor Mahadevar Temple. The St. Thomas Christians (native Christians of Kerala) lived on the northern side of this Syrian settlement and served their Syrian masters. They were liberated from the strictly enforced caste system by payment of money to the caste Brahmins as compensation for their spritual liberation and they consisted of converted Hindus from various caste levels of the Hindu society. They were unified under the singular label of Vadakkumbhagor and were not permitted to identify with their former religion or caste.

Knananites did not intermarry with native Christians and maintained their endogamous Jewish tradition originating from Abraham. To this day, the Knananites continue as an endogamous community. Striking similarities exist between Knanaya Nasranis and the Cochin Jews. Both groups were granted 72 privileges by the ruling Cheraman Perumals. Copper plates given to the Jews (kept in the Mattancherry Synagogue) were handed to Joseph Rabban just as Knai Thoma was given similar copper plates during the fourth century. Both groups are endogamous. The similarities between these two groups were brought out in a research done by Dr. Shalva Weil, an Anthropologistand senior researcher from the NCJW Research Institute for Innovation in Education, Hebrew University in 1982 titled “Symmetry between Christians and Jews in India: the Cnanite Christians and the Cochin Jews of Kerala,” – Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol. 16, No. 2: 175-196.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Syrian Christians became involved in several internal conflicts. One of the major disputes was regarding the ownership of funds and its interest bestowed upon the Ancient Syrian Church by the British (known also as Vattippanam). After years of legal battle, the Court, declared that the group led by Mor Dionysus Joseph Pulikkottil, the Malankara Metropolitan, being the original Syrian Church, and hence they became the beneficiary of the funds. The person who helped Mor Dionysus win this renowned court battle was Edavazhickal Pothachan (E. M. Philip). His dedication to the cause of the Syrian Church won him the title "Nasrani Simham" meaning Lion of the Nazarenes.

On January 21 (Makaram 8), 1882, with the blessings of Mor Joseph Pulikkottil, eleven Knanaya priests assembled at St. Stephen's Knanaya Church, Veliyanad, and formed an organization called "Malankara Jacobite Syrian Knanaya Committee". The meeting unanimously elected Mr. E. M. Philip Edavazhickal as the secretary and Uthuppan Thomma Puthenpurackal (Vazhayil) as the treasurer. The formation of this Knanaya Committee was a significant turning point in the Knanaya history. The Knanaya Committee codified rules and guidelines for the administration of the nine Knanaya churches which existed as of that date. Further, the Knanaya Committee was instrumental in bringing together the Knananites spread from Ramamangalam to Ranny based on their endogamous nature. In 1910, upon the Knanaya Committee's request, Patriarch Ignatius Abdulla created a Knanaya Diocese with personal jurisdiction considering their ethnic background (i.e., all Knananites and their churches, irrespective of location, will be administered by the Knanaya Diocese). On August 31, 1910, the Patriarch ordained Fr. Geevarghese Edavazhickal (Mar Severious) as the first Knanaya Bishop.

The Knanaya Diocese which started with 9 churches now has 107 churches spread all over the world



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