Newly uncovered 300-year-old inscription highlights forgotten Persian bishop of Kerala

During his time in Kerala, Mar Gabriel became an important spiritual and political entity, with nearly 22 parishes associated with him.

In the Orthodox Church of St. Mary or “Cheriyapally” in the town of Kottayam in Kerala, the recent deciphering of an inscription almost 300 years old on a wooden board has brought to light the long forgotten link between Kerala and a Persian bishop from the early 1700s known as Mar Gabriel. During his stay in Kerala, Mar Gabriel became an important spiritual and political entity, with almost 22 parishes associated with him, and he developed considerable influence with the Dutch colonial powers.

History of the Nasranis

Christianity was established in Kerala during the first century CE, and the local Christian community known as Nasranis established links with various ancient Christian communities in Persia, Syria and Asia Minor. The Nasranis used an ancient language known as Syriac in their liturgy, which led to them being called Syrian Christians. Syrian Christians in Kerala had ties to the Eastern Church or the Persian Church, based in Mesopotamia, and later established itself as the main church in the Sassanid Empire. The Persian Church used the Eastern Syriac rite, which was also used among Syrian Christians in Kerala as a liturgy.

Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople in the IIIe century, began to ruffle the rest of the Christian clergy by arguing that Jesus Christ had both a divine and a human nature, and that Mary should not be seen as “Theotokos” (the Mother of God), rather like the bearer of Jesus, the human. In 431, Roman Emperor Theodosius II called a meeting of the Council of Christian Bishops at Ephesus (in modern Turkey) to discuss the theological views of Nestorius. The Council of Ephesus condemned the teachings of Nestorius, also known as Nestorianism, as heresy. This was reiterated by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

However, the Persian Church refused to regard Nestorianism as a heresy and considered Nestorius to be a saint. Tensions between the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire also influenced the strained relationship between the Vatican and the Persian Church. In 424, the Persian Church declared itself independent from the Roman Catholic Church. The Persian Church has spread to parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Central Asia, and even parts of China. Nevertheless, the Church slowly declined, which was only accelerated by the military conquests of the Timurid Empire.

Syrian Christians in India were forcibly subjected to the Catholic Church by the Portuguese who took control of parts of Kerala in the 16e century. However, part of the Syrian Christians resisted and fought for their independence. In order to gain recognition from other churches, the leader of dissident Syrian Christians, Mar Thoma I, sought to establish a relationship with the Church of Antioch. In 1665, the Patriarch of Antioch (the head of the Church of Antioch) recognized Mar Thoma as bishop of the region of Malabar. By this time, the hold of the Portuguese had weakened considerably due to the conquest of the Dutch East India Company in Kerala. The Dutch helped local Syrian Christians to establish links with Antioch. Syrian Christians under Mar Thoma adopted the Western Syriac Rite, followed by the Church of Antioch, which was distinct from the Eastern Syriac Rite of the Persian Church.

Mar Gabriel’s mission

The Patriarch of the Persian Church, Eliya X, decided to send bishops to Kerala to revive the Eastern Syriac liturgy. Therefore, in 1705, Mar Gabriel, a Persian Nestorian bishop of Baghdad, was sent to Kerala. Interestingly, in a letter written by Mar Gabriel, he mentions that the Persian Patriarch in 1700 sent Bishop Mar Symons to Malabar. However, before Symons arrived, he sent a letter declaring his intention to visit the area. This letter was intercepted by Roman Catholics, who captured the bishop and imprisoned him in Pondicherry. Following this tragedy, the Patriarch sent Mar Gabriel on a mission to Kerala. It is also possible that Mar Gabriel was the eldest of most of the bishops of Persia, as British resident GT Mackenzie in the Travancore handbook mentions that Mar Gabriel was the Archbishop of Oburbigan, a seat under the Church of the East.

Mar Gabriel traveled to the kingdom of Thekkumkoor in present-day Kottayam and joined St. Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral in Changanassery. He tried to gain recognition from the local Roman Catholic authorities, but they never fully trusted him. Eventually, he was forced to leave Changanassery Church after it was revealed that Mar Gabriel was in fact a Nestorian, which was considered heresy. He then joined Cheriyapally in Kottayam in 1708. Cheriyapally, built in 1579, is the second oldest church in Kottayam and is held in high regard by the local Syrian Christian community.

Inscription on Mar Gabriel in the Orthodox Church of St. Mary or ‘Cheriyapally’ in the town of Kottayam in Kerala

Relations with the Dutch

Mar Thoma’s successor, Mar Thoma IV, found his position contested by the presence of Mar Gabriel whom he saw as a rival and a heretic. He therefore wrote to the Patriarch of Antioch to complain about the presence of “Ninevite” Gabriel and the fact that his clergy were not well equipped to counter Gabriel’s theological knowledge and skills. The letter was sent via the Dutch, who did not forward it to Antioch, possibly due to their comfortable position with Mar Gabriel, whom they saw more as an ally than a threat.

Mar Gabriel’s ability to forge political relations with the Dutch made him a center of power in Kottayam. He once wrote Jacob Canters Visscher, a Dutch chaplain, an account of the history of Syrian Christians. In his letter, he claims that several Christian priests from Baghdad, Nineveh and Jerusalem came to the Malabar region to lead the indigenous Christian community. He recounts how in the 1500s the Portuguese tried to place Syrian Christians under the authority of the Catholic Church, and when they resisted, they persecuted Syrian Christians. According to the letter, a Portuguese bishop named Alexio traveled to Cochin to get his authority accepted by Syrian Christians, and when he failed, the Portuguese persecuted Syrian Christians and bribed the King of Cochin to prevent him from help Syrian Christians. The arrival of the “justice-loving” and “peaceful” Dutch, who defeated and driven out the Portuguese, is described as a godsend by Gabriel. The person called “Alexio” is probably Aleixo de Menezes, then Roman Catholic Archbishop of Goa.

Visscher in one of his letters provides us with the only surviving description of Mar Gabriel. In his letter he wrote:

Mar Gabriel, a white man, sent here from Baghdad, is old and of venerable appearance, and dresses much the same as the Jewish priests of old, wearing a turban-style cap and a long white beard. He is courteous and pious and not at all addicted to extravagant pomp. Around his neck he wears a golden crucifix. He lives in the greatest sobriety, abstaining from all animal food. His house, large enough for the habits of the Malabar people, is located on a hill in the kingdom of Tekkenkoer. He holds the Nestorian doctrine concerning the union of the two natures in the person of our Savior.. “

Mar Gabriel also used his political connections with the Dutch to make several interventions. Dr Jincy Othottil, in his research, highlighted how in 1708, when there were issues between the Syrian Christians of Kandadad and the Raja of Cochin, Mar Gabriel wrote to the Dutch commander to help resolve the problem. In 1709 he wrote again to the Dutch commander to help defuse tensions between Syrian Christians and Roman Catholics. In 1727, the Dutch sent a missive to the rulers of Malabar to ensure that Syrian Christians were not harassed. This could have been the result of Mar Gabriel’s repeated letters to the Dutch.

Syrian Christians unhappy with Mar Thoma IV began to follow Mar Gabriel. Almost 22 churches came under his influence. He also tried to introduce the traditions of the Persian Church. It is said that during his stay in Cheriyapalli, the three-day feast, a ritual of the Persian Church, was observed. He used donations from the devotees to buy rice fields, and the rice that was harvested from the fields was used for the feast. He also advocated allowing priests to marry and abandoning the Catholic custom introduced by the Portuguese which prescribed celibacy for priests.

In 1729, Mar Thoma IV’s successor, Mar Thoma V, wrote to the Dutch commander in Cochin to complain about Mar Gabriel. The Dutch asked one of their distinguished chaplains, the Reverend Valerious Nicolai, to sort out the issues between the two bishops. Nicolai wrote to Mar Gabriel and Mar Thoma, pointing out that both were following heresy and offered to show them the “true path”. Mar Gabriel responded negatively to this unsolicited advice, while Mar Thoma said he could not deal with doctrinal matters without the permission of his patriarch in Antioch.

A forgotten legacy

On February 8, 1731, Mar Gabriel died and was buried at Cheriyapally. As he had not appointed a successor, the mission to reestablish the Eastern Syriac rite as the dominant liturgy also ended with his death. A feast was celebrated each year in memory of Mar Gabriel, until this practice was later abolished by the Patriarch of Antioch. Unfortunately, those who considered Mar Gabriel a heretic due to his Nestorian beliefs destroyed his grave in Cheriyapally. The debris from the grave was then used for the construction of the staircase of the Cheriyapally office building. A wooden plank supporting the staircase, with the ancient inscription on Mar Gabriel’s burial at Cheriyapally, is now the only remaining historical artifact connecting the history of Kerala with the forgotten Persian bishop.

Arvind Kurian Abraham is a lawyer specializing in constitutional law. He writes on law, history and politics.

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