In 52 A.D. Thomas Didaemus, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ is believed to have landed at Musiris (Cranganore) in Kerala. He made his first converts both Jews and Hindus at Palayur a town now in Trichur district, Kerala. There he built a small church with an altar, which he consecrated.
This is supposed to be the oldest church in India.
St. Thomas later moved to the east coast. and settled in Madras (now Chennai) in 64 A.D. after having travelled all the way to China. Back in Chennai, the apostle is said to have stayed at what was then a village where the present zone of Mylapore is located.
In 72 A.D., St. Thomas fell foul with the authorities. He sought refuge in a nearby hill but was killed. This hill, where he died, has since become St. Thomas Mount.
The Palayur church still stands at the same site and is the oldest church in India. In the 17th century Reverend Fenichi enclosed the original church with a new outer building, as the wooden walls of the old church were destroyed with time. But the original altar consecrated by St. Thomas still remains at this site.
The second oldest church in Chennai is the San Thome Basilica built over the site where St Thomas’ body was once buried. In the sixth century, Armenian Christians discovered the grave of St. Thomas and built a church on the site in present day Mylapore.
The first European settlers in India, the Portuguese, found the old church in ruins when they arrived in the 16th century. In 1516, they built a new Baroque-styled church there later to be called the Lazarus Church. Meanwhile, when they discovered the burial site of St. Thomas, they built yet another church in 1523 on the Mylapore beach and called it San Thome, after the apostle. This is now the nucleus of the present San Thome Basilica.
In 1606, the Diocese of San Thome was established at the personal request of King Philip II of Portugal to Pope Paul V. In 1898, Dom Henriques Reed de Silva, the first Bishop of Mylapore, built a new neo-Gothic cathedral over the old site. This is the towering structure we see today.
The remains of St. Thomas were later shifted to Ortona in Italy where they remain to this day. At the Basilica in Chennai is a small bone of his hand together with a portion of bloodstained earth and head of the lance, which struck him down.
India also boasts of the oldest Protestant church in Asia. This is also located in Chennai, built inside Fort St. George, where the British colony was stationed. Consecrated in 1680 by the Chaplain Reverend Richard Portman, the church was called the Church of St. Mary. This is because the foundation stone was laid on the Annunciation Day of the Blessed Virgin.
The first marriage recorded here was that of Elihu Yale (founder of Yale University in the United States) with Catherine Hynmars on November 4, 1680.
San Thome’s pride is that it is the only church in Asia, and one of the very few in the world, built over the tomb of an apostle of Christ. Atop St. Thomas’ Mount is a Church dedicated to Our Lady of Expectations. This contains an oil painting on wood, of Virgin Mary with child. St. Luke the apostle is believed to have made it. It is mentioned in writings dating back to 1559.
Though Christianity was established by 72 A.D., the Christian movement throughout the rest of India was propagated only after the arrival of the European and North American missionaries in the 16th century.
Today, there are over 35 million Christians in India both Catholic and non-Catholic, with the maximum number in Kerala.
However, like people in other regions, Indian Christians too, have preserved their Indian roots in celebrating weddings, Christian festivals and in their dress habits.