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A History of the Church of England in India
Since the Early Days of the East India Company

By Eyre Chatterton
Bishop of Nagpur

London: SPCK, 1924.

Chapter XX. The Diocese of Travancore and Cochin, 1879. The Country of Fiords, Mountains, and Moplahs


1. John Martindale Speechly, consecrated 1879; resigned 1889: died 1898.

2. Edward Noel Hodges, consecrated 1890; resigned 1904.

3. Charles Hope Gill, consecrated in Westminster Abbey on the Feast of St. Luke, 1905.

Books of Reference.--The Anglican Church in Travancore and Cochin by the Rev. W. S. Hunt; A History of Missions in India, by Richter.

TUCKED away in the extreme south-west of India are two Native States, which together form the modern Anglican Diocese of Travancore and Cochin. It is a fascinating bit of country. A lofty range of mountains on the east cuts it off from Tinnevelly, and its sea-coast is one long series of lagoons or back-waters, so that one can travel for great distances along it protected from the uncertainties of the Arabian Sea. Between its sea-coast and lofty hills and mountains, is a not very wide stretch of plain country, which is remarkably fertile. Unique in its natural features, it is also somewhat unique in its inhabitants. Some years ago a book was written with a political motive, entitled India--A Nation. One hardly knows whether to laugh or feel indignant at such a grossly untrue title of this vast Peninsula, where more than three hundred different languages are spoken, and whose many races differ from one another far more profoundly than do the races in Europe. Travancore gives its quota to this vast jumble of mankind, with at least half a dozen races, of whom one especially has, in recent times, won for itself an unenviable notoriety. Located in large numbers at the foot of its hill country are the Moplahs--a race of men whose male ancestors are said to have come from Arabia. Fierce, fanatical Moslems, and extremely strong physically, they have been for long years a frequent source of terror to the mild Hindus who form the bulk of the population of Travancore and Cochin.

Cut off from the rest of India by its natural geography, Travancore has also evolved social and religious customs of its own, which are found nowhere else in India. Its native chiefs come to their inheritance through the maternal and not the paternal line. Caste is nowhere so strong as it is in these regions, and woe betide the "untouchable" or "unapproachable," be he man or woman, who comes too near the Brahman or high-caste man.

Certainly no one of our thirteen Anglican Dioceses in the Ecclesiastical Province of India and Ceylon has a history which, from a Christian point of view, is comparable to that of Travancore and Cochin. For, although few, if any, historians of repute are prepared to accept the ancient tradition that the Apostle Thomas visited Travancore and first sowed the seeds of the Christian faith in this country, still no one doubts that Christianity came to Travancore within the first three centuries of the Christian era, and that the first-fruits of India to Christ were won in these regions. Nor, again, can there be any doubt that its first evangelists were Eastern and not Western missionaries, who belonged most probably to the ancient Church of Northern Mesopotamia, commonly called the Assyrio-Chaldsean Church, before that Church had become infected with the Nestorian heresy.

One name most prominent amongst the early evangelists of Travancore is that of Thomas of Cana, and it is thought probable that the similarity of his name to that of the Apostle has been responsible for the idea that Travancore was evangelised by St. Thomas the Apostle. It should be stated, however, that no amount of historical criticism is likely to shake the deep-rooted conviction of the Travancore Christians, that to them belongs the glory of an Apostolic origin.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the Rev. W. S. Hunt, one of the Travancore missionaries, for his very readable little history of The Anglican Church in Travancore and Cochin, the first volume of which has recently been published. Let us hope that its sister volume will not be long in appearing.

There are to-day, in Travancore and Cochin, about one and a half million Christians, or more than a quarter of the whole Christian population of India. These Christians can be classified broadly under the following heads:--

(1) Those who are connected directly or indirectly with the Church of Rome, and who number something like seven hundred thousand. Of these about two hundred and fifty thousand follow the Latin rite, the remaining four hundred and fifty thousand being allowed by the Church of Rome to keep some of their ancient Syrian rites and customs --in this respect like the Uniat Greek Church.

(2) Those of the ancient Syrian Church, who are divided into three classes: (a) those under the Jacobite or West Syrian Patriarch of Antioch, numbering about two hundred and fifty thousand; (b) those of the Reformed, or St. Thomas' Syrian Church, under its own Metropolitan, numbering about one hundred thousand; (c) those under the East Syrian Patriarch, numbering about forty thousand, with their chief station at Trichur.

(3) Anglicans, numbering sixty-five thousand.

(4) Those under the London Missionary Society in South Travancore, numbering about one hundred thousand.

There is a considerable difference of opinion as to whether the Syrian Church in Malabar was Nestorian or not in its early days. Claudius Buchanan, who visited Malabar one hundred and fifteen years ago, writing in his Christian Researches, states, "There are at this time fifty-nine Churches in Malayala (or Malabar), acknowledging the Patriarch of Antioch; the Syrians are not Nestorians. Formerly they had Bishops of this Communion, but the Liturgy of the present Church is derived from that of the early Church at Antioch, called the Liturgy of St. James the Apostle. They are usually denominated Jacobite; but they differ in ceremonial from the Church of that name in Syria, and indeed from any existing Church in the world. Their proper designation, which is sanctioned by their own use, is Syrian Christians."

For long centuries the Syrian Church lived its own life and followed its own customs. Their Churches were generally decorated with large, and often very old, crosses. "On the other hand, there were no pictures of saints; the only saints they honoured were the fathers of the Nestorian Church. They observed three Sacraments--Baptism, Holy Communion and Ordination to the Priesthood. The Lord's Supper they administered in both kinds; but before handing the bread to the communicant the priest dipped it in the wine. Instead of grape wine, which could not be obtained, they made use of juice pressed from raisins, previously steeped in water, or even the ordinary palm wine of the country. They had no Confirmation, no auricular confession, no extreme unction. Further, and this is particularly noteworthy, they had no monachism--no monks, no nuns, no monasteries. Withal they maintained a well-ordered Church discipline, which was exercised by the priests in the presence of the whole congregation, and their ban fell heavily on all evil-doers in civil as well as in Church life. A beautiful and greatly beloved custom was that of the 'love feast' (Nercha), at the celebration of which many thousands of Christians frequently assembled. It was a good sign, too, that girls who were poor (and as, according to Syrian custom, girls had no right of inheritance, there were many such) were endowed either by members of the congregation or from the Church funds. The Syrian Christians ate only fish and herbs on Wednesdays and Fridays; on the other hand, they did not regard Saturday as a fast day. Mass was said every Sunday, though it was not a strict rule of the Church that the congregations should assemble in the Churches to hear it. It is worthy of special note that there existed a very numerous body of native priests (Kattanars) and deacons (Shammas), who were required to attain a certain degree of education, and, in particular, a knowledge of the Syrian language, though it must be admitted that their education was not of a very high order. In many families the spiritual calling had been hereditary from time immemorial, especially in the Palamattam family at Koro-longata. In addition to this, the priests were proud of, and insisted on, the national character of their Church. From the Palamattam family was always chosen the Archdeacon, the most influential of all the priests, save the Bishop, who was sent from Mesopotamia. Most of the priests were married; many even married a second time; and their wives were held in the greatest esteem.

"It must be admitted, however, that there was a considerable amount of compromise with the usages and ideas of the surrounding heathen; marriages were often celebrated when one or both parties were only nine or ten years of age; cases of polygamy were not unknown; Sunday labour was not infrequent; children were seldom baptised before the fortieth day, and often it was a case of months and years; in the remoter districts there were whole families who had never been baptised. Pride in the high caste accorded to the Syrians in virtue of their Christianity was so great that they avoided all intercourse with the lowest castes, and discountenanced and sought to prevent the conversion of members of low castes to Christianity. Within the memory of men they had never carried on any kind of missionary activity. The Syrian Church was thus as it were a foreign body, wholly self-contained, in the midst of the heathen populace of Malabar, and for that very reason the more tenacious of its customs and traditions." [Richter.]

During this long period, news occasionally filtered through to Europe of this Church which had been founded, as it was popularly believed, by the Apostle Thomas in South India, and, as is well known, good King Alfred, in fulfilment of a vow, sent a Mission to the shrine of Thomas in South India in the eighth century.

Then with the coming of the Portuguese an era of great change began. At first the Portuguese adopted a friendly attitude towards these famous Christians, who, accustomed as they had been for long centuries to all kinds of oppression at the hands of their Hindu rulers, looked on the Portuguese as natural allies, and even placed themselves under the protection of the King of Portugal. There can be no doubt that the Portuguese were animated by political motives in their early attitude towards the Thomas Christians. Their minds were at that time full of the ambition of founding a colonial empire in India, and they felt that a strong body of loyal Christians would be a great help in carrying out their far-reaching plans. Gradually, however, the political view faded into the background, and the ecclesiastical position of this Christian Church in Travancore became their prime concern. The heavy troubles which befell this ancient Syrian Church fell on it, we must remember, more than a generation after the death of Saint Francis Xavier. During his period the Roman Catholic authorities at Goa seem to have been animated almost entirely by a desire to convert the non-Christians of India.

It has always been the policy of the Roman Church--a natural policy, after all--to work along the line of least resistance, and it was clear to Portuguese Roman Catholic authorities at Goa that their first duty was to bring the ancient Syrian Church of Malabar into what they regarded as the fuller light of truth. Their methods were, to say the least, questionable. Malabar had, as we have seen, from the first received its Bishops from Mesopotamia, so it was obvious to Archbishop de Menezes that if he was to reduce it to the Roman obedience, it was necessary to cut off this Episcopal supply. "Stern orders were issued to all Portuguese ports in India, that no Nestorian Bishop hailing from Mesopotamia and bound for Malabar, should be allowed to proceed on his journey. One Nestorian Bishop, who had reached Ormuz, at the south of the Persian Gulf, was forced to return to his home, and another, after evading the Portuguese, died at Lahore." *

Then, when the Church in Travancore found itself without Bishops of its own, de Menezes the Archbishop felt his time for action had arrived. Summoning a large body of Katta-nars (priests) and laity of this ancient Church to a Synod at Diamper, he laid before them a document which he induced them, after much persuasion, to sign. By the terms of this document their Church was completely Romanised, "the celibacy of the clergy was introduced, and hitherto lawful marriages and happy family life in the Kattanars were mercilessly broken up. Communion in one kind, statues of the saints, and all distinctive Romish rites and ordinances were introduced without the slightest apprehension of the historical uniqueness of this ancient Church." [Richter.]

From 1550 to the end of that century, Jesuit influence was paramount in Malabar. It reached its climax at this Synod of Diamper. Then for the next half-century things remained very much in the same condition, except that gradually there arose a deep discontent amongst these Romanised Syrian Christians. The rights of their native priests were ignored, and everywhere they were made to feel their inferiority. On more than one occasion they appealed to the Pope, but without success. On one occasion they asked that Dominicans should be sent amongst them, but the Jesuits took good care that this appeal should be turned down.

Things eventually reached a climax, and in this way. The Nestorian Church in Mesopotamia had never quite forgotten its brethren in South India, and in 1653 a new Bishop, who had been consecrated by the Nestorian Patriarch, arrived in India. Recognised by the Portuguese, he was taken into custody, carried by sea to Goa, and, after trial by the Inquisition, was burnt at the stake! At the news of this atrocity the Christians in Malabar rose en masse, and, assembling at a place near Cochin, swore solemnly at the foot of the Cross before a Church, that no Jesuit should ever again be recognised as Bishop in their country, and that all Jesuits should be driven out of the land. For a short time it seemed as if Rome would lose everything. Of the two hundred thousand Thomas Christians, as they were called, only four hundred remained true to Rome. Rome would certainly have lost all its influence in Travancore had it not been for the extraordinary sagacity of its leaders. Fully realising the hatred which the Jesuits had inspired, they at once despatched four barefooted Carmelite friars, who were instructed to grant as many concessions as possible, and to do all in their power to remove suspicion and to mollify the people. The result was, in the long run, successful, and though a considerable body seceded from the Roman obedience, a large number remained.

With the decline of Portuguese power in India, there was a short period of Dutch ascendancy, during which the Roman Catholic Church lost much of its power in Travancore and Cochin.

We must now pass on to comparatively modern days, when the English Church was brought for the first time into contact with the Syrian Christians of Travancore. Twice during his period of service as a Chaplain in India, Claudius Buchanan visited these regions, and his book on Christian Researches in Asia was in the main responsible for awakening a deep interest in this ancient Church throughout the religious world in England. Twice also during his Episcopate, Bishop Middleton, the first Bishop of Calcutta, visited Travancore, and was given a warm welcome by the leaders of the Syrian Church. From the first he made it clear to them that his one desire was to help them to improve themselves and not to draw them into anything like a corporate union with the English Church.

In the year 1815--a year of great events in Europe--the first missionary of the English Church to India, the Rev. Thomas Norton, was sent by the Church Missionary Society to Travancore. He came as the result of an urgent appeal by Colonel Munro, the British Resident at Kottayam. Colonel Munro was essentially a statesman of the school of the Lawrences. He was a devout Christian and a kind-hearted philanthropist. At a time when the British Raj was by no means popular, he was most desirous of strengthening its power and influence. He felt that by helping these down-trodden Syrian Christians "he was securing the support of a respectable body of loyal Christian subjects, connected with the mass of the people by a community of language, occupations, and pursuits, who would be united to the British Government by the stronger ties of religion and mutual safety." He knew how terribly the Syrian Christians had suffered, and he was anxious to secure for them not only religious, but civil benefits. At this time no Syrian Christian was in any way connected with the administration of the country. As a preliminary step, Colonel Munro had Thomas Norton appointed as Judge of the Civil Court at Allepey, when he knew enough of the Malayalam language to make it possible. At the same time, he appointed a missionary of the London Missionary Society to a Judgeship in another part of the State. He also used the missionaries as intermediaries between himself and the Government. Knowing how closely they were in touch with the people, he felt they would fairly voice the pressing needs of the Syrian Christians. He also aimed at improving the standard of education of these Syrian Christians, and especially the education of their Clergy. For this purpose he persuaded the State to give a large and suitable site for a College at Kottayam (now called the Old Syrian Seminary), and he himself was largely responsible for the erection of the buildings, which were primarily intended for the training of Deacons and Priests of the Syrian Church. He also persuaded the missionaries to open schools in various places in Travancore and Cochin.

The Rev. Thomas Norton, as has just been said, was stationed at Allepey--a region somewhat remote from the Syrian Church. His work, for the most part, was amongst non-Christian people and particularly amongst the Jews. Then came in quick succession a number of missionaries, of whom Benjamin Bailey, Joseph Fenn, Henry Baker, Samuel Ridsdale and Joseph Peet were the most famous. Some of these missionaries gave very long periods of service to the country. Benjamin Bailey spent thirty-four years, Henry Baker forty-seven years, and Joseph Peet thirty-two years of hard work in Travancore. During his first ten years, Joseph Fenn, a highly gifted man, who had been called to the Bar, was obviously the leader. It was a period of feeling their way. Their aim was to help the Syrians to help themselves. It was renovation and not an attempt at drawing them over to the English Church. In many respects their work was not unlike that of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Mission to the Assyrian Church of Kurdistan.

Ten years elapsed--ten years of happy co-operation and kindly feeling--during which the College at Kottayam had proved a success and most of the missionaries were welcomed as preachers in the Syrian Churches. Then came a change--perhaps an inevitable one.

For a long period the Church of Antioch had taken but little or no notice of their brethren in Travancore, when they suddenly decided to send an Archbishop to visit it. With his coming the attitude of the Syrian Church towards the English missionaries underwent a big change. Instead of friendly co-operation they began to look upon the efforts of the English missionaries with suspicion, and even accused them of desiring to seduce them from their ancient allegiance.

Just about this time, too, Bishop Wilson, the Metropolitan of India, visited Travancore. He found things in a very unsettled and unhappy state and set to work to improve them. In an interview with the chief Metran, he urged certain reforms. His first demand was that the College should be the recognised place for the education of their Clergy. For some time before, the Metran had apparently been receiving small sums of money from quite uneducated and in some cases unsuitable men, and had been ordaining them to the priesthood without any College training. Bishop Wilson also urged that the Clergy should be supported by other means than the fees for the prayers for the dead, and that schools should be spread all over the diocese. Most important, however, of all his suggestions was that a Malayalam Liturgy be framed from the Syrian Liturgy and be generally used. This meant that the people would worship in a language they understood. The Metran, at the time; thanked the Bishop for his kindly counsel, and promised to put his recommendations before the general body of the Syrian Clergy when they met in Synod. Bishop Wilson was clearly confident that he had gained his points, and, before leaving Travancore, gave a handsome personal gift towards the Syrian Church. Greatly to his astonishment a few months later a Synod was held at Mavelikara, at which it was decided that none of the Bishop of Calcutta's recommendations should be executed, and that "they, being the Jacobite Syrians subject to the Patriarch of Antioch, and observing the Church rites and rules established by the Prelates sent by his command, cannot deviate from them; and as no one possesses his authority to preach and teach the doctrine of one religion in the Church of another without the sanction of their respective Patriarchs, he cannot permit the same." A solemn oath was then taken by the Metropolitans and priests to have no further intercourse with the missionaries, and to withdraw all their deacons from the College; they also returned the Bishop's gift.

When this remarkable change of face on the part of the Syrian Church took place, it was inevitable that those missionaries who had been working in Kottayam and amongst the Syrian Christians should adopt an entirely new attitude in the future. They had primarily come to the help of the old Syrian Church, and now they were informed that they were no longer wanted. Fortunately for our missionaries, though these ancient Christians bulked large in the population of Travancore, there were many others to whom they could go. Some of them, like Thomas Norton, had already done excellent work and achieved considerable results in and around Allepey. Later on, Henry Baker, the son of the first missionary of that name, did great things amongst the Hill Arrians and out-castes. Ridsdale also did a great work in Cochin, winning a number of distinguished converts, amongst whom was the son of the Rajah.

And so, nothing daunted, these devoted men pressed forward in the work of the evangelisation of Travancore, a work which had always been conspicuously neglected by the ancient Syrian Church. Years passed, in which numbers of converts were made, until in the year 1878 it was found impossible for the Bishop of Madras, who was then in charge of this part of India, adequately to shepherd the growing Anglican Church of Travancore. The first Bishop to be appointed, the Rev. John Martindale Speechly, had been working for many years as an educational missionary at Kottayam, in the John Nicholson Institution. After an Episcopate of ten years he was succeeded by the Rev. Edward Noel Hodges, who, fifteen years later, was succeeded by a distinguished missionary from North India, the Rev. Charles Hope Gill.

As we have already stated, the Anglican Communion has a membership of about sixty-five thousand persons. They are composed broadly of three classes: (a) those whose ancestors were amongst the comparatively few people of the old Syrian Church who pressed for admission into the Anglican Communion; (6) converts from amongst the Hill Tribes; (c) people from the depressed classes, who have been coming forward in great numbers for some years past, and of whom it may be said, "they are taking the Kingdom of Heaven by violence."

It has often been stated that one great evidence of a living Church is whether it is missionary in spirit. It is interesting to note that the Diocese of Travancore maintains its own Missionary Society, with one clergyman and twenty lay workers evangelising a distant portion of Travancore. Plans are now being made to extend its operations by opening a Travancore Anglican Mission in a part of the Hyderabad State in the Diocese of Dornakal. Like the remainder of our Indian Dioceses, the Diocese of Travancore is governed by a Diocesan Council, consisting of the Bishop and all the Clergy and about eighty representatives selected from the laity. This Council meets once a year.

Perhaps one of the happiest features in the religious life of Travancore in recent years has been the revival of the original good feeling which existed a century ago between the Church Missionary Society and the Syrian Church. When the Church Missionary Society was observing its Centenary celebration in the year 1916, some of the leading Bishops and Clergy of the Syrian Church took the opportunity of expressing how much they owed to the work of the Church Missionary Society within its area. The Rev. Father Geo-Vergese, speaking on behalf of the Metropolitan of the Syrian Church, who was unable to attend, spoke of the various benefits which his Church had received through the Church Missionary Society. He recalled how the early missionaries had given to the Syrians the Bible, not only in Malayalam, but also in Syriac, and how many Syrians had passed through the Kottayam College. He further stated that long before the Sirkar had given education to the people of Travancore, the Church Missionary Society had done so. He spoke warmly of the brotherly efforts to promote cooperation and union which had been undertaken by the present Bishop.

With this improved feeling the ancient Syrian Church is at length waking up to its duty towards the evangelisation of the non-Christian population in South India. Now at length, under the long-continued influences of the Church Missionary Society, especially of the late Rev. Thomas Walker, and of later years through annual visits of the Oxford Mission to Calcutta, it does seem as if something great in a missionary sense was going to be accomplished; and this Eastern Church, casting aside its lethargy, is about to become what the Nestorian Church was centuries ago.

The Diocese of Travancore is well endowed with educational institutions. There is, in the first place, the Cambridge Nicholson Institution for training candidates for Holy Orders, as well as for evangelistic and teaching work. There is the Church Missionary Society College at Kottayam, affiliated to the University of Madras. This College was started about the year 1840, when the missionaries of the Church Missionary Society withdrew from their co-operation with the Syrian Metropolitan. "It has always been 'a Mission of Help' to the large Syrian Christian community on the Malabar coast. Most of the Metropolitans and Bishops of the non-Roman Catholic Syrian Churches, as well as most of their priests and prominent laymen, have received their education in this College. Its buildings contain a fine chapel and a spacious hall, as well as large lecture-rooms and a hostel. The Rev. F. N. Askwith was Principal in this College for twenty-seven years until the year 1920. His place has now been taken by the Rev. W. E. S. Holland, a well-known educational missionary from North India. In addition to this there is an excellent High School, as well as an institution for training women teachers, which bears the honoured name of Buchanan. There are High Schools at Trichur and Mavelikara, Boys' and Girls' Boarding Schools at Tiruwella, Trichur, and Kunnankulam. There are also Industrial Schools for boys at Kottayam and Leper Asylums at Allepey." [Communicated by the Bishop.]

Alwaye is a small town on the northern border of the Travancore State on the banks of the beautiful Periyar river. At this place a new Union Christian College was opened in 1921, as an Intermediate College. It was affiliated to Madras University in 1923, when it was raised to the B.A. standard. It owes its inception to the enthusiasm of some leading members of the Syrian and Anglican Churches, who united together to establish the College. Some of them have since joined a Teaching Fellowship or Brotherhood, and are serving on the College staff. It is possible that some day this Union College may develop into a University for the Malayalam-speaking area on the Malabar Coast. Of the spirit which animates that body, which is called the Alwaye Fellowship, Bishop Gill writes most enthusiastically. In his opinion, it is the finest product of the Indian Church that he has seen in India. "It stands for the will and ability of sons of India to do something themselves on a large scale for the Kingdom of Christ in India. It has been wonderfully blessed by God with lands and money and staff, and union amongst its members. It aims at a higher standard of Christian life, individual and collective. It is evangelistic in spirit, because it is deeply Christian and must lead all souls to Christ."

Of recent years the desire for something like a union has begun to grow amongst the various Christians of South India, and the influence of the movement has already spread to Travancore. Let us hope that in God's own time there will be a living and happy union between all the Christians in this area, and that these Christians, many of whom are already conspicuous for their intellectual and spiritual gifts, may be inspired with a desire for the conversion of India and may become great evangelists amongst their own non-Christian fellow-countrymen.

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