The Communities of St.Thomas

fabric bird kalamkari

A rare approach towards filling spaces with patterning is seen in common between folio 86v and the traditional southern Indian form known as kalamkari.

fol 86v south roundel eye











Remarkably little is known about the history and practices distinguishing the various  ‘Thomas Christians’ in India prior to the fifteenth century, despite the fact that their oral tradition asserts that the first  Community was founded in Malabar (southern India) by Christ’s brother in the first century AD.

cross kottayam-cross1

Western clerics questioned their differences from Roman doctrine even before the arrival of Portuguese, but thereafter Rome  used both force and persuasion to make the Indian Christians of Malabar submit to papal authority in all matters related to religious text, rites and  imagery.  Older books and works were so thoroughly eliminated that we have now little evidence of the Communities’ history or practice throughout the previous thousand, or possibly fourteen hundred years.

While I do think this matter is  relevant for an understanding of the  Voynich manuscript’s imagery – and perhaps even its written text – I want to move on to consider the ‘bathy’ and ‘pharma-‘ sections, so below is simply a  selected bibliography (Reading List) and some quotations for anyone who might care to read futher.

Vadakekara’s substantial work is often cited, though not easily obtained:

1. Benedict Vadakekara, St.Thomas Christians: A Historiographical Critique, Delhi: Media House, 1995.

– it was reviewed by Cyriac Pullapilly in the Catholic Historical Review, Vol.86, No.4 (Oct. 2000) pp.718-720.

Vadakekara’s criteria for defining the earliest among the groups  are stated clearly enough, but somewhat problematic. He nominates those who follow the  ‘Law of Thomas’ and for whom   Syriac is the liturgical language and who simultaneously observe similar caste regulations and rituals to the Hindus’.

Since Christian liturgical ritual was not established at the time when Thomas is said to have established the first community, so Vadakekara is here tacitly endorsing the official histories of the Malabar church proposed by Rome and by the Syrian Orthodox church: viz. that the first community was settled not in the 1stC AD but by an influx of various Christians from Syria in the 3rdC AD. It is also true, as both the author and his reviewer say, that this is not the only region – there are several in the middle east and Asia – where Christians hold that their ancestors were converted by Christ’s brother Thomas in the  1stC AD.

2.  C. J. Fuller, ‘Kerala Christians and the Caste System’, Man, New Series, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 53-70.
3. J. Duncan M. Derrett, ‘The Theban Scholasticus and Malabar in c. 355-60 [A.D.], Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 82, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1962), pp. 21-31. Important chiefly for its picture of the early decades of the Roman Christian empire.
“In the middle of the fourth century intelligent and educated Egyptian Greeks believed that a visit to India would be good for mind and soul, and might repay the enterprise needed to make the journey. A land route was not always open, in view of Roman-Persian [i.e. Sasanian] relations. The sea-passage depended on the Axumites and their Indian contacts [an Indian prince being resident there at the time]… Greeks, however were not commonly seen in that part of the world, and if they appeared at an awkward moment in the development of competition for the pepper trade, they were liable to be ill-received…” p.31
4. Walter J. Fischel, ‘The Exploration of the Jewish Antiquities of Cochin on the Malabar Coast’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 87, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1967), pp. 230-248.
The Congregation.. in Cochin on the Malabar coast has in its possession until today two copper plates on which are engraved in ancient Tamil language, written in the archaic and obsolete Vatteluttu script, certain privileges granted to a Joseph Rabban many centuries ago by the Hindu ruler of Malabar… These copper plates cherished… as their most precious historical documents, as their charter, their original settlement deed (sásanam) are deposited in an iron box, known as Paneal, in the ‘Paradesi’ Synagogue .. and carefully guarded by its Elders’.
note 2: Paradesi, meaning ‘foreigner’ is applied to the ‘white Jews’ and their synagogue built in 1568 and after its partial destruction by the Portuguese in 1662 was renovated in 1664. It … adjoins the northern end of the palace of the rajah of Cochin. (p.230)
script Cochin Jews title deed

The character which is chiefly used in the document is the Vatteluttu alphabet. Grantha letters are used in a number of Sanskṛit words and the in the foreign word “Issuppu”. The language used in an early form of Malayalam.

5. Richard Michael Swiderski, ‘Northists and Southists: A Folklore of Kerala Christians’, Asia Folklore Studies,  Vol. 47, No. 1 (1988), pp. 73-92.
The Christians have … two mutually exclusive sections.. While Kerala Christians today seldom acknowledge this division, it has been the theme of bitter polemic in the past .. The Malayalam names for the Christian divisions are always Tekkumbhagar-Vadakumbhagar, but [among] the English equivalents .. Northist-Southist is most common…
With the mnemonic device set in f.43v  in mind, I also add the following (excerpted) sentences.
Malabar north-south blog
Also, in view of numerous other factors in the manuscript, such as the ‘lotus rebirth’ motif and emphasis given a site in North Africa in folio 86v, as well as the typically Syrian ‘bearded sun’ in the astrometeorological section,  I reproduce part of a publication which is cited, and quoted in more length, by Swiderski (p.74).
The ‘bearded sun’  being a type attested certainly in the 8thC BC, it is not impossible that books revered as religious texts might have preserved such imagery to as late as the 4thC AD, in exactly the same way that in the 7thC AD, the Greco-Egyptians of Harran claimed as holy writ works written more than thousand years before: by Pythagoras, Aratus and Homer. In fact, the Harranians’ texts are among those few which survive from the Hellenistic era, and others apparently from the same source appear first in medieval Spain.
Given the similar mixture of influences in the Voynich imagery as in the group described below, arriving together in the 4thC, these communities’ pre-Portuguese works suggest one reasonable explanation for the range and variety of allusions in this manuscript’s imagery.
Syrian Cananites Kerala blog
‘Knanayits’ as ‘Canani’ ‘~
There is no suggestion made by any scholar studying Indian Christians  that these Syrians known as ‘Knanayits’ were other than genuinely Christian. The issues were theological and doctrinal. Rome considered every other form of Christian church heretical. Some, like the Greek Orthodox were tolerated; others like the ‘Nestorians’ were not. If a group among the Malabari followers of Thomas were  ‘Phoenicians’ in any sense, it was that used by Saint Augustine of Hippo and Heliodorus in describing themselves.
 Manichaean elements ~
In the first century,  to be a Christian was still, by and large, to be a Jew.  Recent studies have revealed an early and evidently close connection between Mani’s thought and Syrian groups such as those of Quman, with the Qumran ‘Book of Giants’ being particularly considered in that light.
And, of course, the Liber Nimrod is – again – recognised as an eastern work (on which see Livesey and Rouse, earlier cited).
Popular notions of Phoenician (chiefly Libyo-Punic) culture derive less from the historical and archaeological evidence than the impact  of Flaubert’s  nineteenth-century novel.  Rightly described as “an exercise in sensuous and violent exoticism”  it is also informed by a subtext of that virulent anti-Semitism typical of its place and time.

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