Various Rites:The Catholic Church is composed of two kinds of rites namely Oriental and Occidental (Eastern and Western). There are twenty-one oriental rites and the rest are Western. The Syro-Malabar Church is one of the Eastern Churches.

The Apostles went around the world and preached the Good News to different ethnic groups and cultures. Many people from various countries and cultures embraced the Good News. Those who embraced Gospel expressed and celebrated their faith in different ways, languages, rituals etc. Though faith was one and the same, its expressions varied according to the culture. This resulted in the formation of various liturgies and rites. The distinction of East and West depended upon the two Capitals of the Great Roman Empire. All the Churches, which came under the Capital City of Rome, were called the Western Churches, and all the Churches which came under the Capital City of Constantinople (Byzantium) were called the Eastern Churches. While the Latin rite developed in the West, five main eastern rites called Alexandrian, Antiochean, Armenian, Chaldean, and Byzantine began to take shape in the East.

There are six Patriarchal Churches among the Eastern Churches:

  1. Coptic 2. Syrian 3. Maronite 4. Armenian 5. Chaldean 6. Melkite

Major Archiepiscopal Churches in the Eastern Churches:

  1. Ukranian 2. Syro-Malabar 3. Syro Malankara


The origin of the Syro-Malabar Church is traced to the arrival of St.Thomas, one of the twelve Apostles, to India in AD 52. He preached the Good News in different Kingdoms around the Subcontinent and established seven and a half Ecclesial Communities in Malabar (Kerala). After twenty years of his activities he was killed by a Hindu fanatic  in Mylapore, near Madras in the state of Tamil Nadu  in AD 72. The Universal Catholic Church celebrates St.Thomas day on July 3rd.  It is a day of obligation for the Syro- Malabar church.

Persian Invasion:

The early Christians in India were called St.Thomas Christians. But when the Persians came to India in 4th century, they imposed the Chaldean liturgy upon this community for about one thousand years. The Persian Church was also known as the East Syrian or Chaldean or Babylonian Church. They appointed Chaldean bishops from Persia to govern this indigenous church. A local Bishop was never ordained.

Portughuese Rule and Latin Influences

When the Portuguese arrived and colonized India in the beginning of the 16th century, they imposed Latin liturgy upon the Syro-Malabar church, and this oriental church was westernized in every sense, and it has almost lost its identity as an Eastern Church. This practice continued for about four hundred years. The bishops who governed the church were from abroad. They could never understand and tolerate the diversity in the Catholic Church. Everything unknown to them was heretical. They destroyed all the liturgical texts, vestments and anything valuable to this church, and everything unfamiliar to them. This continued until 1896 when a local bishop was appointed.     

The missionaries seem to have had the impression that the St. Thomas Christians were not Catholics but Nestorians. It was because They accepted Bishops from the East Syrian Church which officially had adopted Nestorianism. This historical development took place immediately after the Council of Trent. This council was very tough against heretics. So they were all out to bring back the Syro-Malabarians to the Roman obedience. There were also the commercial interests in appointing Latin Bishops to rule the Syro-Malabarians. The last Bishop appointed by the East Syrian Patriarch for Syro-Malabar died in 1597. Then the Portuguese began to tighten their hold on the Syro-Malabarians, and never permitted any East Syrian Bishops to enter their colony in India. 

Division in the Church

It was during the period of 1653 to 1887 that many divisions took place in the Syro-Malabar Christian community. Attempts were made by the people to get rid of the rule of the Latin Bishops  who gave hardly any value to the ancient system of administration, tradition and the Christian heritage of Syro-Malabar church in India.   

The Synod of Dyambar and Coonan Kurishu Oath:

 The headquarters of the Latin hierarchy in India during the Portughese period was Goa. The archbishop of Goa convened a synod in Udayamperoor a small village in Kerala in 1599. The members of Syro-Malabar community were coerced to accept many Latin customs unfamiliar to them. It was claimed that with the synod of Diambor Syro-Malabarians were made to accept Catholicism as well the authority of Pope. The fact, however, was different. The Syro-Malabarians had never accepted Nestorianism. It was true that they had contact with the East Syrians. But they were not at all involved in any of the Christological controversies. On the contray whenever they had an occasion they reiterated their allegiance to the Pope and their communion with the Church of Rome. Though some of the Syro-Malabarians accepted the rule of  the Latin bishops they were very unhappy about it. Their resentment continued overtly and invertly. The climax of the protest was well expressed in the evet of  Koonan Kurishu Sathyam (Koonan= bent, Kurishu= cross satyam= oath). In Mattanchery at Fortkochi, one of the then commercial centers in Kerala,  a group of Christians gathered under the leadership of the archdeacon. They took an oath touching the chord put around a huge cross that they would never accept the rule of the Jesuit missionaries any more. Usually Bishops for India were appointed from this religious community. This historical event occurred in 1653.  It has to be noted that it was a revolt against the oppressive rule of the Europeans, and not against the Pope or the Holy See. Unfortunately, after the Oath twelve priests at the instigation of one of the members who was very influential laid hands on the head of the archdeacon and “ordained him Bishop”. There began the division in the Church of the St.Thomas Christians.

Back to Communion

Tension continued in the Church. The faithful wanted to be in communion with the Holy See but at the same time they did not want to remain under the Bishops appointed by the Portuguese crown. This made many of the faithful go back to the obedience of the Latin bishops. But a small group remained in schism. Those who remained under the “pseudo Bishop” (false) later accepted the tradition of the Anthiochan non-Catholic tradition, and were known as the Orthodox Church. In the course of history because of the missionary work mainly of the Protestants many other non-Catholic Churches began to get rooted in India

Continuous Effort:

There were continuous efforts to win back the people who were not in communion with the Holy See. There was no remarkable success primarily because of the opposition from the European missionaries.

Mar Kariattil:

Fr. Joseph Kariattil and Fr. Thomas Paremmakkal, were two priests from the Church of St.Thomas Christians. They were very learned, and in 18th century they made very serious attempt to bring the concern of the Syro-Malabar Church to the notice of the pope. They made a visit to Rome and presented the matter to the Pope. He was ordained archbishop of the St.Thomas Christians, and had received a mandate to receive the dissident group with its bishop to the Catholic communion. Unfortunately archbishop Kariattil on his way back to Kerala died in Goa in 1786. His death still remains as mystery in the history of Kerala church. An it was only in 1930 a group of them under the leadership of their archbishop Mar Ivanios reestablished their communion with the Catholic Church. The Holy See accepted them and they were allowed to remain in Catholic Church as a separate rite. This church is a known as Syro-Malankara rite.Those St.Thomas Christians who remained in the communion of Pope even after the Coonan Cross Oath later came to be known as the Syro-Malabarians.

Those who remained in communion were still fighting for getting indigenous Bishops of their own rite. It became a reality only in 1896 when the Apostolic Vicariates of Trisshur, Ernakulam and Changanachery were established and three native priests were appointed as vicars apostolic.


As a result of the continued petitions from the members of the Syro-Malabar community to get emancipated from Western domination, Pope Pius IX established the Syro-Malabar Hierarchy in 1896. Unfortunately its activities were strictly restricted to certain boundaries within one of the tiny states of India called Kerala. They were not allowed to do any evangelical activity in any other part of India in their mother rite. Those who wanted involve themselves in mission activities had to adopt Latin rite. And the Latin rite widely and cleverly made use of the personals of Syro-Malabar church to expand their own church in India. The late Cardinal Tisserant, the then Prefect of the Oriental Congregation, who studied the history of Syro-Malabar church, recommended to the Holy Father to lift the restriction imposed upon it. Consequently in 1952 Pope Pius XII extended its territory to Malabar, Mysore, Nilgiris and Thiruvanandapuram and established the diocese of Thalassery. It was a milestone in the history of Syro-Malabar Church.

Knanaya Community

In the middle of the 4th century or later a group of Christians from Persia under the leadership of a merchant called Thomas of Kinayi migrated to Kerala a southern state in India. The descendants of this group are called Knananites or Southists. Though they belong the Syro-Malabar Church they live as two separate communities with their own diocese and parishes In the year 1911 a separate vicariate apostolic, Kottayam, was erected for them. The bishop of Kottayam has jurisdiction over all the Knanaya faithful within the provinces of Ernakulam , Changanacherry, Trissur and Tellicherry.

At the time of the Coonan Cross Oath many of the Knanaya parishes also had accepted the “pseudo bishop” ordained by the twelve priests. In the course of time they too accepted the Antiochean non- Catholic way of worship and customs. In the reunion movement in 1930 some of the Knanaya parishes reestablished communion with the Holy See. But instead of joining the Syro-Malankara Church they joined the diocese of Kottayam in the Syro-Malabar Church. They follow the Antiochean liturgy and they have separate parishes and priests within the diocese of Kottayam.