Ancient History, Young Church

text and photographs by the Rev. Dr. Anthony Vallavanthara, C.M.I.

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At the southern-most tip of the Indian subcontinent – at land’s end – lies Kanyakumari, or Cape Comorin in English. Here three great bodies of water meet: from the east, the Bay of Bengal, also called the Gulf of Mannar; from the south, the Indian Ocean; from the west, the Arabian Sea. Dawn and dusk are dramatic moments: thousands of tourists travel from all over the world to witness the rising and setting of the sun where the three seas meet.

Kanyakumari also draws great numbers of Hindu pilgrims who believe in the sacredness of the waters. One often sees the devout carrying urns filled with the ashes of their loved ones. These ashes are immersed in the waters near a memorial to the father of the Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi, whose ashes were also brought to Kanyakumari and immersed in the waters.

On 2 February, thousands of people gathered in the small village of Padanthalumood, some 36 miles north of land’s end, to celebrate the establishment of the first Syro-Malabar Catholic eparchy in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Bishops, clergy and religious from the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Latin (Roman) Catholic churches – as well as representatives of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox and Protestant churches – joined Hindu and Muslim leaders and the heads of local political parties and social organizations in participating in the ordination and installation of Mar George Alancherry as the first bishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Thuckalay. The eparchy derives its name from a small township in Kanyakumari district, Thuckalay, once the southern frontier of the ancient Kingdom of Venad.

The demonstration of religious harmony provided by the ordination is very unique to southwestern India and, in particular, to Kerala and the Tamil district of Kanyakumari. For more than a millennium, Hindus, Christians and Muslims have lived together in harmony and trust, although in recent years radical fundamentalists have threatened this ancient way of life.

Interestingly, Kanyakumari has the highest population of Christians of all districts in India, numbering more than 835,000 people. Catholics of the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches, totaling more than 500,000 believers, constitute the majority of the Christian population. Malankara Syrian Orthodox, Reformed and Evangelical Christians make up the balance.

The overall number of Syro-Malabar Catholics has increased dramatically, from 170,000 in the late 19th century to more than three million today. Dedicated missionaries played a major role in this growth and their work led to the establishment of the Eparchy of Thuckalay.

In 1953, Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, then Secretary of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Church, visited Kerala. On his return to Rome, Cardinal Tisserant submitted a report of his travels to Pope Pius XII. This report prompted the Pope in 1955 to enlarge the boundaries of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church beyond the state of Kerala, extending the limits of the Eparchy of Changanacherry from the Pampa River in Kerala to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu.

Missions were established in the extended territory to provide pastoral care to emigrant Syro-Malabar Catholics there. Priests and religious from these missions soon began to work, however, among the Nadars, or low-caste Hindus.

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Tags: India Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Socioreligious programs