Thomas of Cana

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Thomas of Cana

Thomas of Cana (Malayalam: Knāy Thoma, Syriac: Knā'nāya Thoma) is a figure in the history and traditions of the Saint Thomas Christian communities of Kerala, India. He is said to have led a migration of Syriac Christians from the Middle East to India sometime between the 4th and the 9th century. This may reflect a historical migration that strengthened the ties between the Indian church and the Church of the East. The Thomas of Cana story also factors into traditions of the divide of the community into Northist and Southist factions; the Southists or Knanaya claim descent from Thomas of Cana and his followers.

Malayalam language spoken in Kerala and Lakshadweep of India

Malayalam is a Dravidian language spoken in the Indian state of Kerala and the union territories of Lakshadweep and Puducherry (Mahé) by the Malayali people, and it is one of 22 scheduled languages of India. Malayalam has official language status in the state of Kerala and in the union territories of Lakshadweep and Puducherry (Mahé) and is spoken by 37 million people worldwide. Malayalam is also spoken by linguistic minorities in the neighbouring states; with significant number of speakers in the Nilgiris, Kanyakumari, and Coimbatore districts of Tamil Nadu, and Kodagu and Dakshina Kannada districts of Karnataka. Due to Malayali expatriates in the Persian Gulf, the language is also widely spoken in Gulf countries.

Syriac language dialect of Middle Aramaic

Syriac, also known as Syrian/Syriac Aramaic, Syro-Aramaic or Classical Syriac, is a dialect of Middle Aramaic of the Northwest Semitic languages of the Afroasiatic family that is written in the Syriac alphabet, a derivation of the Aramaic alphabet. Having first appeared in the early first century CE in Edessa, classical Syriac became a major literary language throughout the Middle East from the 4th to the 8th centuries, preserved in a large body of Syriac literature. Indeed, Syriac literature comprises roughly 90% of the extant Aramaic literature. Syriac was once spoken across much of the Near East as well as Anatolia and Eastern Arabia. Syriac originated in Mesopotamia and eventually spread west of Iraq in which it became the lingua franca of the region during the Mesopotamian Neo-Assyrian period.

Kerala State in southern India

Kerala is a state on the southwestern Malabar Coast of India. It was formed on 1 November 1956, following passage of the States Reorganisation Act, by combining Malayalam-speaking regions. Spread over 38,863 km2 (15,005 sq mi), Kerala is the twenty-third largest Indian state by area. It is bordered by Karnataka to the north and northeast, Tamil Nadu to the east and south, and the Lakshadweep Sea to the west. With 33,387,677 inhabitants as per the 2011 Census, Kerala is the thirteenth-largest Indian state by population. It is divided into 14 districts with the capital being Thiruvananthapuram. Malayalam is the most widely spoken language and is also the official language of the state.



Written accounts of Thomas of Cana date to the India's Portuguese period. [1] Different versions give different dates for the events; some place them in 345; others as late as the 9th century. [1] [2] The meaning of the Cana epithet is unclear; it may refer to the town of Cana or the land of Canaan in the Bible, [3] or it may be a corruption of a Syriac term for merchant (Knāyil in Malayam). [4] However, scholar Richard M. Swiderski states that none of these etymologies are entirely sound. [3]

Portuguese India former colony of Portugal

The State of India, also referred as the Portuguese State of India or simply Portuguese India, was a state of the Portuguese Empire, founded six years after the discovery of a sea route between Portugal and the Indian Subcontinent to serve as the governing body of a string of Portuguese fortresses and colonies overseas.

Cana historical place in Galilee

The Gospel of John refers a number of times to a town called Cana of Galilee. The name possibly derives from the Hebrew or Aramaic word for reeds.

Canaan A Semitic-speaking region in the Ancient Near East

Canaan was a Semitic-speaking region and civilization in the Ancient Near East during the late 2nd millennium BC. The name Canaan appears throughout the Bible, where it corresponds to the Levant, in particular to the areas of the Southern Levant that provide the main setting of the narrative of the Bible: Phoenicia, Philistia, Israel, and other nations.

Knanaya priest and scholar Jacob Kollaparambil argues that the "Cana" form is a corruption introduced by European scholars in the 18th century based on the Malayalam form Knāy and its variants (Kynāi, Kināyi, Kinān) found in the folk tradition of the Knanaya and the common parlance and literature of the people of Malabar. [5] This may be a reference to the Christian community of Kynai, in Bét Aramayé in Persia. [6]

In most accounts, Thomas is said to have been a Syrian merchant, distinct from Thomas the Apostle, who preceded him in evangelizing in India. According to the traditions, Thomas of Cana led a group of 72 families, as well as clergymen, to the Malabar coast. There they met and supplemented the Saint Thomas Christians, who had been evangelized by Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century. Copper plates referring to this story exist, but are of a substantially later date. [4]

Thomas the Apostle Early Christian, one of the twelve apostles and a saint

Thomas the Apostle, also called Didymus ("twin"), was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus according to the New Testament.Thomas is commonly known as "Doubting Thomas" because he doubted Jesus' resurrection when first told of it ; later, he confessed his faith, "My Lord and my God," on seeing Jesus' crucifixion wounds.

Though some scholars doubt the veracity of the Thomas of Cana tradition, others suggest it may reflect a historical migration of East Syriac Christians to India. This may have been the era in which the region's relationship with the Church of the East developed. Stephen Neill suggests that East Syriac Christians may have come to India specifically because there was already an established Christian community, to whom they imparted East Syriac traditions. [7]

East Syriac Rite

The East Syriac Rite or East Syrian Rite, also called Assyrian Rite, Persian Rite, Chaldean Rite, or Syro-Oriental Rite, is an Eastern Christian liturgical rite that uses the East Syriac dialect as its liturgical language. It is one of two main liturgical rites of Syriac Christianity.

Church of the East an Eastern Christian Church that in 410 organised itself within the Sasanid Empire and in 424 declared its leader independent of other Christian leaders; from the Persian Empire it spread to other parts of Asia in late antiquity and the Middle Ages

The Church of the East, also called the Persian Church or Nestorian Church, was a Christian church of the East Syriac rite established c. 410. It was one of three major branches of Eastern Christianity that arose from the Christological controversies of the 5th and 6th centuries, alongside the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Since the Schism of 1552, there have been several different churches claiming the heritage of the Church of the East.

Northists and Southists

Knaithoma bhavan Knaithoma bhavan.jpg
Knaithoma bhavan

The arrival of Thomas of Cana figures into traditions concerning the division of the Saint Thomas Christians into "Northist" and "Southist" factions. In these versions, the Southists or Knanaya are the direct descendants of Thomas of Cana and his followers, while the Northists descend from the pre-existing local Christian body converted by Thomas the Apostle. [8] In some versions, Thomas of Cana had two wives or partners, one the ancestor to the endogamous Southists, and the other (generally described as a Kerala native) the ancestor to the Northists. [8] All these stories are apocryphal, though both Southist and Northist groups use variants to claim superiority for their faction. [1]


The Knanaya, also known as the Southists or Tekkumbhagar, are an endogamous group in the Saint Thomas Christian community of Kerala, India. They are differentiated from another part of the community, known in this context as the Northists. Today there are about 300,000 Knanaya in India and elsewhere.


  1. 1 2 3 Baum & Winkler, p. 53.
  2. Vadakkekara, p. 239.
  3. 1 2 Swiderski 1988b, pp. 55–56.
  4. 1 2 Neill, p. 42.
  5. Kollaparambil 1992, pp. 1-20.
  6. Kollaparambil 1992, pp. 1.
  7. Neill, pp. 42–43.
  8. 1 2 Swiderski 1988a, pp. 76–80.

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