Mike Aquilina

Spice and Spirit

Thursday September 14th 2006, 3:16 am

Whenever I post on Christianity in ancient India, I see an avalanche of interest. There’s an abundance of plausible tradition concerning the Apostle Thomas’s work there. It’s affirmed by many of the Fathers and historians of antiquity. Modern historians, especially in India, have built libraries of evidence, judiciously sifted. Archeology, however, is problematic, since India’s climate is hostile to preservation (making it quite unlike, say, the deserts of Egypt). Paper, wood, pigment just don’t hold up.

Still, some excavations and underwater explorations have yielded results that favor the claims of the Thomas historians. The more the archeologists dig and dredge, the more we learn about Roman-Indian contact and sea trade — which seems to have been quite extensive. That was the point of last month’s links on the recent finds at the port of Muziris. Now comes a far more detailed analysis of the archeological data on Indo-Roman sea trade. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology is providing, free for download, “Evidence for Indo-Roman Trade from Bet Dwarka Waters, West Coast of India.” It’s well illustrated with photographs of cool stuff pulled from the ocean and the ground.

Right around the time of Christ, sailors discovered the trade winds that made travel to India much more speedy and safe. Ships could then sail the open sea, rather than hugging the shoreline as they formerly had done. Some of us find the timing providential. Some of us believe that the same thought probably occurred to St. Thomas. We can be fairly certain that it occurred to St. Pantaenus and others who took the spice route in their evangelical travels.

If you’re interested in the subjects of Christianity, India, and St. Thomas, I recommend the histories by Mundadan and Menachery, both available in India but difficult to track down in the States. You can usually find copies for sale (and quick, reliable shipment) from Merging Currents, a bookseller I’ve written about here. We should encourage the work of these historians, who face heated and sometimes irrational opposition from Hindu nationalists. Such critics accuse Christianity of having “anti-national designs,” and they speak of the churches as “instrument of the Western powers.” Some even claim that St. Thomas’s apostolate was a late invention of the Portuguese colonizers — this in spite of the ample testimony from the patristic era.

They are extremists, of course, but they have recently been influential in setting the limits of politically correct speech. Yet this conflict is unnecessary, as more moderate voices have long recognized. In 1955, India’s president Dr. Rajendra Prasad celebrated the early arrival of Christianity on the subcontinent: “Remember, St. Thomas came to India when many of the countries of Europe had not yet become Christian, and so those Indians who trace their Christianity to him have a longer history and a higher ancestry than that of Christians of many of the European countries.” For Prasad, who was himself a devout Hindu and close associate of Gandhi, that historical likelihood was “a matter of pride.” For anti-Christian extremists today, it’s a threat to their political agenda, as is the evidence of other East-West trade and collaboration. When we read about it and spread the word, we’re taking a stand against prejudice, and making a stand with Christian historians who must work in difficult circumstances. But it’s a virtuous act that’s a pure pleasure. So read up!