R Masakui | Christianity in India: a testimony of cultural diversity | Art & Leisure
I often call India a ‘mosaic’ as opposed to a ‘melting pot’, as each ethnicity, language, religion, and tribal group has maintained, if not strengthened, its distinct cultural identity over the seven decades since its inception. independence. At the risk of stretching the analogy, Christians form one of the most distinct segments of this living Indian mosaic.
Few people know that Christianity in India is as old as Christ himself. Even before his time, Arabs and other ancient maritime traders had settled in the state of Kerala in southern India to trade in spices. Legend has it that the Apostle Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, according to the New Testament, went to India to preach the gospel in 52 CE, about 2000 years ago. His sermons became popular, and he gained quite a few adherents in present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu, now called Thomas Christians. To put this in perspective, the first European region to accept Christianity was Armenia in 301 CE, or 250 years after India. The apostle Thomas died in AD 72, and St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica in present-day Chennai is believed to have been built over his grave. The famous Venetian traveler, Marco Polo, also visited the church in 1327 CE and confirmed the tomb of Saint Thomas. Therefore, the popular perception that Christianity was brought in by European colonialists is completely misplaced.
Christianity came to India not once, but in waves. In 1498, the famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed to the state of Kerala in southern India to open the first Europe-India sea route. What followed were priests and chaplains who introduced the Latin or Roman Catholic rite. This was followed by the arrival of missionaries from several European countries professing different denominations over the next four centuries. American missionaries frequented India in the 20th century. The community has been divided, re-divided, changed, reformed, reinvented itself and moved on.
Unlike other parts of India, the spread of Christianity in central and northeastern India is fairly recent. The work of Western Christian missionaries among tribal groups, especially in the education and health sectors, aided by British administrators, played a major role in the spread of Christianity. The spread continued even after independence, with the result that the region has one of the largest concentrations of Christian populations in India. Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jesuits, Adventists and many other faiths are represented here. The customs brought by the missionaries intermingled with the original tribal traditions and those of the communities practicing Hinduism and Islam, resulting in a rather unique blend. For example, many villages in central and eastern India have statues of Mother Mary wearing tribal clothing. Likewise, the prayers exhort the ideals of the saints in the mold of Hindu devotional songs.
IMMEDIATELY WITH INDIAN CULTURE
Christian traditions have intertwined so well in the Indian cultural rainbow that it is difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. The spread of Christianity in India has largely taken place without animosity or bloodshed. It was said that the king of Tamil Nadu frequented the sermons of Saint Thomas. Even though Mughal Emperor Akbar was a Muslim, he called two Christian priests from the Jesuit order to his court in 1579 and donated land for the construction of a church. Likewise, many local Indian leaders helped build the first churches by the Portuguese and other Europeans. Christmas is a joyous occasion all over India regardless of faith or religion. Christians participate in the celebrations of other religions in India. It is important to understand that the sole purpose of most missionaries in India has never been the propagation of Christianity alone, but the upliftment of the people and the service of the masses. In fact, it was this selfless service that drew people to Christianity. Missionary schools and hospitals in India are attended by all and are highly rated. It is this sense of service that Mother Teresa, a saint who gave her life to work for people with HIV, leprosy and tuberculosis, is revered by followers of all religions in India and not just by the Christians.
The diversity within Christianity in India is also reflected in the architecture of the Church. St Thomas Church in Kerala is the first church in India and is said to have been built by St Thomas himself in AD 52. One of the most famous churches is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Thomas in Chennai, built in 1523 by Portuguese explorers, over the tomb of St. Thomas. It was rebuilt by the British in 1896 in the Gothic Revival style. Velankanni Church in Tamil Nadu is one of the most beautiful churches in India. Called Lourdes de l’Est and elevated to the rank of “Basilica” by the Pope in 1962, this Roman Catholic church is visited by around 20 million people each year. The Basilica of Santa Cruz de Kochi has frescoes in the columns with seven huge paintings on canvas and stained glass windows. The 400-year-old Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Tourists from all over the world come to see its Baroque architecture. The stained glass windows and beautiful wooden interiors of All-Saints Church in Coonoor take you back to British colonial times. Visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral in Calcutta at Christmas is on the priority list of many believers and tourists. Built by the British in an Indo-Gothic style, this church is one of the ancient surviving churches in India.
The famous American writer Mark Twain once said: “India is the cradle of the human race, the cradle of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great-great -mother of tradition ”. Suffice to say that Christianity has an invaluable contribution to this glorious history, legend and history to which Mark Twain referred. Christianity has found a home in India, like many others who were born here or traveled to other countries, and will continue to spread the message of peace, justice and integrity. And this became possible because Indians are “seekers” of knowledge in addition to being believers. The basis of the country’s psyche is best reflected in a quote from the three millennia old Hindu scripture Rig Veda, ‘Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah’ that is, “may noble thoughts come to me from all directions.” This acceptance of different points of view also explains the diversity of the Christian faith in India. Going back to the analogy I started with, if India was a mosaic, then Christianity in India would be best described as a “mosaic within a mosaic”.
– R. Masakui is the High Commissioner of India in Jamaica. Send your comments to [email protected]