How Aramaic Became the Language of Nasranis

Koonammakkal Thoma Kathanar
Beth Aprem Nazrani Dayra


This article was extracted from "Elements of Syro-Malabar History" by Koonammakkal Thoma Kathanar.

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Contacts between Mediterranean world, Mesopotamia, Persia and India began before fourth millennium BC. During the third and second millennium BC Indus valley and Sumer had very flourishing civilisations. Ancient tablets discovered from Ur the home town of the ancestors of Abraham indicates the existence of trade between Sumer and Indus valley. The Brahmi script of India and Sumerian are related. Gradually Dravidians from the Indus Valley were pushed to the south and north India underwent Arianization. The contacts between Phoenicia and South India go back to second millennium BC. Jews came into contact with south India in the tenth century BC following the commercial enterprises of Solomon. They were following the footsteps of Phoenicians from the Tsur and Sidon. The king Hiram of Tsur, the contemporary of Solomon (972-932 BC) promoted international trade with South Indian Coast. Spices like pepper, ginger, precious gems, ivory, gold, peacocks, apes etc. were exotic attractions from South India. According to Koder, the first Jewish colony of South India goes back to the days of King Solomon [1]. After Solomon, Jews underwent the exiles in Assyria in 734-732 BC and Babylonia in sixth and fifth centuries BC. Gradually the deported Jews began to engage in international commerce especially with South India. Ordinary Jews forgot Hebrew and became speakers of Aramaic, the language of international trade. Babylon of this period was the greatest international market of the world. It was dependent and related to South India by sea route which extended even up to southern China.

In the seventh century BC South India served as meeting point between traders from East and West. Teakwood, sandal, rice, and other articles mentioned above were fascinating items in this trade. Teakwood from South India had been excavated in the Moon temple of Ur. Palace of Nebuchadenazzar (604-562 BC) was decorated with Indian wood [2]. Babylonian captivity of the Jews was terminated by Persian emperor Cyrus in 539 BC. But many of the Jews interested in international commercial enterprises remained in Babylon. Some of them settled in Malabar Coast [3]. Jewish exiles of Assyria were scattered among many peoples and countries. Some of them got settled in different parts of India. These two groups of exilic Jews were Aramaic speakers. In the second and first centuries BC, another group of Jews migrated to South India. So we see a pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic Jewish emigration in South India.

The Roman army conquered Egypt in 30 BC and took over the control of international commerce through Egypt. 120 ships used to sail every year from Red sea to the Malabar Coast. Within 40 days the Monsoon winds brought them to the Coast. With the help of opposite Monsoons these ships used to return to Egypt in the same year. Emperors Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) and Tiberius (14-37 AD) promoted trade between Egypt and Malabar Coast. More than 500 coins of Augustus have been discovered in South India. The coins of Emperor Tiberius from South India number over 1000. These are clear indication of the flourishing trade in the first century BC and the first century AD. The Persian, Arab, and the Egyptian navigators already knew the course of Monsoon winds. These already-existing knowledge was “discovered” by the Greek Hippalus. Thus a long kept secret was divulged probably during the reign of Ptolemy Euergetes (146-116 BC). Later the so-called discovery of Hippalus was divulged to Romans in the first half of the first century AD. According to Peutinger tablets from the second century AD Egypt, there is a temple of Augustus at Muziris near modern Kodungallur region [4]. The new discoveries from the archaeological excavations of Pattanam (a part of ancient Muziris) in 2007 have necessitated the rewriting of the history of Malabar Coast [5]. Naturally many Aramaic speaking Jewish settlers and traders were in Malabar Coast during this period. Roman trade expansion accelerated the presence of Jewish settlers and traders. Their forefathers were already familiar with Aramaic even in the pre-exilic period as we hear from many Old Testament texts. Alexander’s invasion of India resulted in further cultural and commercial contacts. An offshoot of official Aramaic (circa. 700-300 BC) appeared as Biblical Aramaic (Gen. 31:47, Jer. 10:18, Dan. 2:4-7:28, Ezra 4:8-6:8, 7:12-26). Edicts of Ashoka (272-232 BC) have been discovered in middle Aramaic (circa. 300 BC onwards) from Afghanistan. Then we find late Aramaic from which Christian Aramaic or Syriac, Targumic Aramaic developed. Finally, modern Aramaic appeared by 14th century AD [6].


The apostles of Jesus Christ were commanded to bring the message of the gospel to scattered Jews living in different parts of the world. The Apostle Thomas undertook his first mission throughout the Persian region (including North West India) where he found many Aramaic speaking Jewish communities. In AD 50 he undertook the second mission which was prompted by the Aramaic speaking Jewish settlements of South India. Jews of the Malabar Coast readily accepted the message of the gospel. It is surprising that the seven Christian communities established by him were in the vicinity of Jewish settlements. Most of the then Aramaic-speaking Jews became Christians. The arrival of Thomas on the Malabar Coast was guided by the Jewish merchant Habban. The apostle was received and recognised first by a Jewish flute girl in the Chera royal capital. All these we hear from the first Acts of Thomas composed in the late second or early third century. Song of Ramban (revised and simplified in the year 1601 AD) also supports this. It speaks of 40 families of Jews converted by Thomas in the royal capital. Similarly he might have converted other Jewish settlements of Malabar. In AD 70 the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem temple and the Jews were scattered. Some of them came to settle in the Malabar Coast. The Bar Cochba war (AD 132-35) resulted in other series of Jewish emigration to South India. Gradually they all became St Thomas Christians. Meanwhile their language Aramaic evolved into Christian Aramaic or Syriac. So there was a Judeo-Christian and Aramaic connection and continuity between the Persian Church and the South Indian Church right from the very beginning. This is how Christian Aramaic or Syriac became the liturgical language of St Thomas Christians. It was not at all later import by anybody as it is propagated by some interested groups. There was a cordial relation between the St Thomas Christians and Jewish settlers until the European colonialists came to the scene. The Pesaha celebration, ablutions, purifications after death, Aramaisms of their Syriac, purification of mother and child after child birth, the beginning and end of the day in the typical Jewish fashion, all point towards the Judeo-Christian roots of the past. Old Testament names were very popular among the St Thomas Christians which annoyed Portuguese missionaries. There were no statues or even pictures in the Churches of St Thomas Christians which might be a latent Jewish heritage as well as East Syrian tradition. Christians of Kaduthuruthy closed their eyes in anger and anguish as they were shown a statue of Blessed Mary. They admit only the cross in their Churches [7].


The relation between South Indian Church and Persian Church goes back to the days of Apostle Thomas. The Persian Church was the fruit of his first mission. His second mission resulted in the emergence of St Thomas Christians in South India. These two Churches were culturally and linguistically connected. These relations continued ever since. In the late third century Mar David of Basra came to South India to help the St Thomas Christians. During the persecutions of Christians in the Persian Empire many Christian communities immigrated to South India and merged with the St Thomas Christians. In the fifth and sixth centuries some Indian Christian students and scholars had been associated with the School of Edessa and Nisibis. The series of Persian Christian migrations took place between fourth and ninth centuries to Malabar because of Persian and Islamic persecutions. One of the latest of these groups became Southists because of the appearance of caste system which was unheard of among the St Thomas Christians. By seventh century hierarchical intervention of Selucia-Ctesiphon took over. Until then South India had hierarchical relations with the Persia proper. By ninth century this takeover was complete. It was voluntary undertaking from the part of St Thomas Christians rather than an imposition by the Persians or East Syrians. The Church of St Thomas Christians was more congregational than Episcopal. The ruling authority was in the hands of Palliyogam presided by the Archdeacon and the Gate of all India. Bishop was only a spiritual and monastic head for them[8] .

All the manuscripts burned by Diamper indicate that the Church of St Thomas Christians was theologically, spiritually, liturgically, canonically an East Syrian Church. The famous library and Episcopal archives of Angamaly were systematically burned. Menezes visited and burned Syriac books in at least 59 Churches. After Angamaly library, the Syriac collections of Cheppadu and Chengannur which were also burned, were the most prominent ones. Individual collections of all parishes too underwent this or similar misfortune. Evidently this is the greatest tragedy of Saint Thomas Christians’ spiritual heritage. One can compare it only to the destruction of the Alexandrian library by the Muslim conquerors in 641 AD. Angamaly collection built up over many centuries was the most important intellectual centre of Saint Thomas Christians who had a theological University there. We do not find practically any historical record or document concerning the pre-Portuguese history of Saint Thomas Christians. So we depend on the testimony of non-Indian authors to describe the situation of this apostolic Christian community.


[1] S. S. Koder, Kerala and her Jews, (Ernakulam1965), p.2;  IKg 9:26-28, 10:22.

[2] J. Kennedy “Early commerce of Babylon and India”, JRAS, 1898.

[3] S. S. Koder, op.cit, p.4.

[4] G. F. Hourani, Arab sea fairing in the Indian ocean in ancient and medieval times, (Beirut 1963), pp. 24ff.

H. G. Rawlingson, Intercourse between and the western world, (Cambridge 1916), pp. 121.

[5] The Hindu, December 9, 2009, pp. 18, May 16, 2010 pp. 24, March 14, 2011, pp.18, October 26, 2011, pp.8.

[6] “Aramaic“, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., vol. 2, 342-353.

[7] P. Malekandathil, ed., Jornada of Dom De Menezes (Kochi 2003), pp.237, 190, 244, 245.

[8] For further details see my article “Judeo-Christian and Patristic roots of St. Thomas Christians” in Mar Thoma Margam, ed. A Mekkattukunnel, (Vadavathoor 2012), pp. 71-72.


This article was extracted from "Elements of Syro-Malabar History" by Koonammakkal Thoma Kathanar.

Read the complete article in PDF

© Beth Aprem Nazrani Dayra, Kuravilangad
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