A Brief History of Christian Faith in the Indian Sub-continent:
The following article is extracted from an upcoming book written by John Prabhudoss, titled The Upper West House.
Christianity practiced in erstwhile kingdoms of the Indian sub-continent is as old as the Faith itself.
Christianity was first introduced in the Subcontinent by Christ's own Apostle - the doubting Thomas.
Thomas initially visited Northwestern parts of the sub-continent in the years between 46 AD and 49 AD.
Besides Thomas, another Apostle of Christ, Bartholomew also visited Northwestern kingdoms of the sub-continent establishing churches as far down South as the Port city of present-day Mumbai.
Though there were many churches as far down south as modern-day Mumbai, they were concentrated across the kingdoms of the northwest region and Indo-Persian region.
Bartholomew and Thomas had traveled by land, from Mesopotamia of yesteryears to the northern kingdoms of the Indian Subcontinent through present-day Iran, Baluchistan, and Pakistan
- the same route through which Vedic Aryans came to the Indus Valley several hundred years earlier. Evidently, this is the same route through which Alexander the Great entered the Indus Valley as well.
Though Apostles Bartholomew and Thomas had both established communities of Christian believers in the northern kingdoms of the Indian Subcontinent, Thomas has come to be known as the 'Apostle to India', because the mission in the Indian Subcontinent became his primary focus for the rest of his natural life. Thomas finally died as a martyr, pierced to death, in Mylapore of Thamilagam, near the modern-day city of Chennai, India, in 72 AD, almost 26 years after his first arrival in the Indian sub-continent.
The way Thomas came about to the Indian sub-continent in itself is an interesting history.
Thomas came to the sub-continent because Jesus had commissioned His disciples to go into all the world and preach his message to all people. This is what the Christians call the Great Commission or the Great Commandment of Christ. It is part of the day to day responsibilities of every person who follows Christ.
This preaching of the good news of Jesus can be in any form. It could be just living a life that witnesses the love of Christ to others in everyday life or talking to friends and neighbors about Christ or even telling strangers about Christ as a vocation.
Apostle Thomas and other disciples took this Great Commission, to tell the Good News of the resurrected Christ to the world, very seriously.
Jesus also tasked his disciples to bring this good news about the Messiah - the Savior whom they have been expecting, to the lost House of Israel.
Even at the time of Christ, the Hebrew people were living all over the known world. That included many countries and kingdoms of the Indian sub-continent. The Hebrew people (Jews and other eleven tribes of Israel) were expecting a Messiah, the Savior to come and deliver them.
Recorded history shows that a prosperous Hebrew merchant community thrived in the Chera kingdoms known then as Thamilagam besides the northern kingdoms of the sub-continent from at least before the time of King Solomon. (King Solomon ruled Palestine almost a thousand years before Christ, between 970 and 931 BC). This western Malabar Coastal region of Thamilagam later came to be known as Travancore and Kerala in recent periods. Those Hebrew people in the Indian sub-continent were mainly engaged in trade.
These Hebrew merchants had been trading in spices, gold, silver, sandalwood, and ivories among other things, with the people in Asia Minor and Indian Subcontinent for several centuries by then. So, historically, Hebrew/Jewish merchants have had settlements in different kingdoms of the sub-continent for at least a thousand years before the time of Christ. It also implies that people living in the Indian sub-continent were practicing Judaism for at least 3000 years. So, at the time of Christ, it was well known that there were Jewish merchants in the Indian sub-continent.
Hence, Thomas and Bartholomew came searching for the Jewish diaspora in this part of the world to preach the Gospel of Jesus.
A book in Syriac, dated to have been written in early 3rd-century AD, called the Acts of Thomas, talks about how Thomas traveled to northern kingdoms of the sub-continent at first and then to southern Chera kingdom, during his second visit.
This book describes how Thomas was chosen by the group of disciples to go to the Indian sub-continent. The book says that Thomas was hesitant first to travel to the kingdoms of the Indian sub-continent and so Christ appeared to Thomas in a dream and encouraged him to go on the journey fearing nothing.
So, Thomas accepted the assignment and accompanied a merchant by the name Abbanes, first to northwest kingdoms of the Indian sub-continent. They traveled through Persia and present-day Pakistan, around 46 AD.
There were many Hebrew/Jewish merchant settlements all through the region during those days. These Jewish communities and synagogues served as their host and the launching point for the next destinations. Besides, synagogues along the way also served as their link to the region. Their purpose was simple. It was to tell the world about Jesus who changed the life and understanding of Thomas during the three and a half years he spent with Jesus.
Once Thomas reached the Indus Valley, he and Abbanes met a local Indo-Parthian king (Indo-Persian king) identified in Syriac as Gondophares. Because Thomas was also a good carpenter and a builder in his previous trade, Gondophares asked Thomas to build a palace for him. Income from such construction work was one of how Thomas paid for his expenses during his travels (in the same way other Apostles like Paul who made his income from making tents). So, Thomas agreed to build a palace for king Gondophares.
Some versions of the story inform us that Thomas spent all that money on poor people instead of building the palace. So, when the king came to see the construction of his palace, he asked Thomas where his palace was. Thomas told the king that he built a palace for the king in heaven with the money he gave so that the king could use it when he went there. Of course, the king did not like what he heard and arrested Thomas and Abbanes.