Column: The legend of Kerala’s first Armenian bishops

Column: The legend of Kerala’s first Armenian bishops
Photo: Amazon.com

It’s common knowledge that Kerala was, for centuries, a melting pot of international cultures and a major hub of global trade. For hundreds of years pepper, ginger, cardamom and precious stones left the shores of the Malabar Coast and eventually ended up in the markets of Venice via Aden, the Red Sea, Cairo and Alexandria. Many other products found their way to Kerala on the return route. Foreign travellers also penned their impressions of the state when they visited, giving those of us living in the 21st century an idea of Kerala life in the early to middle centuries of the last millennium.

One such account from a Portuguese traveller and writer sheds light on a legend that is not well known outside a few small parts of southern Kerala.

Duarte Barbosa, who lived in Kannur in the early 16th century, was fluent in Malayalam and carefully observed the people and customs of the state, while at the same time learning about local legends. In The Land of Malabar: The Book of Duarte Barbosa, a compilation of writings from the early 1500s, the writer talks about Armenian bishops who came to Kerala to assist the first people who embraced Christianity in India - the St Thomas Christians in Kollam.

After the apostle of Christ left Kollam for Mylapore, the new Christians stayed faithful to St Thomas’s teachings but had no connection with their co-religionists in other parts of the world. “These Christians, thus continuing without instructions and with no priest to baptise them, were for long Christians in nothing but name only,” Barbosa wrote.

“Then they gathered together and took counsel one with another, and determined to send forth some from among them into the world where the Sacrament of Baptism was known. With this intent five men set forth into the world at great cost, and came to stay in the land of Armenia, where they found many Christians and a Patriarch who ruled them, who understanding their object, sent with them a Bishop and five or six clerks to baptise them and say mass and instruct them, which Bishop tarried with them for five or six years, and when he went back there came another who stayed with them for as many years.”

Barbosa does not clearly mention when these five brave Malayali Christians set out to find what they were looking for.

The Armenian Apostolic Church was founded in the 1st century of the Christian era and is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. By the beginning of the 4th century, the church became the first branch of Christianity that became a state religion.

For such a voyage, the quickest route would have been to Oman and then onwards to modern-day Iran and Armenia. This is a journey that would have taken months. Given the sheer number of traders in Kerala from West Asia, the people of Kollam would have been well informed about where Christianity was most popular and how to get there.

Some accounts indicate that the enterprising Armenian community had set up shop in India as early as the 7th century. Word from returning Armenian priests could have prompted others in Armenia to look at settling in India.

Armenian priests in 16th century Kerala

Barbosa did see Armenian clergymen in Kollam in the early 1500s and probably heard the story of the five travellers from them. He wrote, “These Armenians are white men, they speak Arabic and Chaldee (the language of the ancient Chaldeans). They cite the church law and recite their prayers purposefully. Yet I do not know if they recite the whole office as do our Friars.”

The Portuguese writer described the clothes, rituals and hairstyles and beards of the Armenian priests, and also observed that that there was no wine given during the Communion, but that the priests made a juice pressed from soaked raisins from Mecca or Ormuz, which they gave along with salted bread.

Although Barbosa called them extremely devout he seemed peeved at the way the Armenians profited financially from being priests. “These men baptised for money, and when they returned from Malabar to their country, they had great riches, and thus for lack of money many went unbaptised.” One has to keep in mind that Barbosa’s writings may have been coloured by his own staunch support of the Portuguese way of practising Christianity at that time.

Generations of Malayalis became acquainted with Armenia thanks to Soviet books and publications that were popular in the 20th century. However, the links between Kerala and the beautiful country in the southern Caucasus probably go back to at least the beginning of the Christian era. It remains to be seen what lesser-known travel accounts from both places may reveal.  

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