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Numismatic Studies at the Service of Historical Research --A Case Study


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Numismatic Studies at the Service of Historical Research --A Case Study

Indias Malabar Syrian Nazraney Christians of St. Thomas

Paper presented by Prof. George Menachery, chief editor : stcei / ichc, Ollur, 680306 India [Ph.:0487-2352468 Fax: 0487-2354398 e-mail:] At the XI South Indian Numismatic Society Conference, Velayanad 2001:

Indigenous advances in archaeology, numismatics, anthropology, epigraphy, geography, geology, ocean studies, art, architecture, anthropology, culture etc. in recent years have shed considerable new light on the early literature of India in an astonishing manner and the views held by many western scholars, both sincere and prejudiced, have been once and for all discredited and disproved time and again in the present century.

This paper is presented here because numismatics proved extremely useful in researching certain 1st Century BC/AD events that allegedly took place in various parts of India and because the writer considered it advantageous to have the opinion of the experienced scholars attending this seminar on certain facts and lines of thought not hitherto sufficiently well-pursued, and which could greatly benefit from their added attention. And considering further the brief span of time for the presentation of papers, the discussion has now been restricted to only one of the aspects viz. Numismatics at the service of the historian of early Indian History in studying the veracity of certain 2nd/3rd century work, a number of ancient Indian folksongs, and certain strong traditions prevalent in various parts of the country.

Researches conducted in connection with the preparation of The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India (esp. Vol.II,1973 ), The Indian Church History Classics (esp. Vol.I i.e. The Nazranies, 1998 ), The Thomapedia, 2000, Kodungallur:.., (1987, 2000), and the setting up of various exhibitions and museums during a period spanning more than three decades and the writer's both long and brief association and long or short dialogues with great scholars in the field of numismatics, Indian Ocean studies, cartography, archaeology, history etc. and his attendance at the meetings of the Numismatics Society of Tamil Nadu, the Epigraphical Society of India, the Place Names Society of India, the various Academies, and of this august body etc. have been of immense benefit in these and similar studies. It is hoped however that after carrying coal it would not be discovered at the end of the day that it has all been to

2.00 A 2nd century AD work in Syriac, many poems by Ephraem (3rd/4th century), many folksongs in South India, a historical narrative committed to writing some five hundred years ago in Kerala, timehonoured traditions prevalent in many parts of India speak of the arrival, travels, and activities of a visitor from around Alexandria in India in the First Century A D. The crediblity of this 'Thomas legend,' as described in Kerala-Mylapore tradition, in the Song of Thomas Rambhan, in the Margam Kali songs etc., and in the Acts of Judas Thomas has been vehemently questioned and denied by the vast majority of western scholars during the major part of the 19th century. It has been said and with quite some truth that this vehemence was at least partially due to the fact that many westerners refused to believe that their own present religion, though originally from the East, had arrived in another country, that too a 'pagan' and 'idolatrous' country like India many centuries before it had come to their own motherlands in Europe. Whatever the truth of this one thing is certain: these western scholars left no stone unturned in their attemps to disprove the Indian 'legend' about the travels of the Alexandrian visitor Thomas.

2.01 Among the strongest arguments used were 1) that there is no king of the name Gondaphares (as mentioned in the 2nd C. Acts) in Indian history, none of his coins had ever been discovered, no Vamshavali of Indian kings mentions such a name etc. and 2) it is not possible to associate the specific places, routes etc. mentioned in the Acts, traditions, songs, and narratives with first century contacts with the west. These are the only two objections we are dealing with here and analysing in the light of numismatics developments in the subcontinent.

3.00 A most dramatic discovery in the field of numismatics in
India effected a magical change in the understanding of this whole story. This was as a result of the excavations made both to the east and west of the river Indus. Long before any coins or inscriptions of Gondaphares had been discovered, the name of the king was familiar to the western world in connexion with the visit of Thomas in India. In the several texts of these apocryphal books the king's name appears variously as Gudnaphar, Gundafor, Gundaphorus, and Goundaphorus. His brother Gad's name also is mentioned there. Yet those names were totally unknown to history until large numbers of coins of this King were discovered. On his coins it appears , in Karoshti, as Guduphara or, occasionally, Godapharna; in Greek, as Undopheros, Undopherros or Gondopherros, which apparently represent local pronunciations of the Persian Vindapharna 'The Winner of Glory'.

The Greek rulers of the
Punjab were ultimately overcome by the Saka tribes of central Asia...They established principalities at Mathura, Taxila, and elsewhere. We are here concerned with one of these Persian Princes, known to the Greeks as Gondopharnes, who was in 50 A.D. succeeded by Pacores. His kingdom comprised Taxila, Sistan, Sind, Southern and Western Punjab, the NWFP, Southern Afghanistan, and probably part of the Parthian dominions west of Sistan. Hence he could be considered both as an Indian king and as a Parthian. (cf. Farquhar, North India, I.C.H.C. v. I, p. 313 ff.; Sir John Marshall, A Guide to Taxila, 4th Edn., Cambridge University Press, 1960. For photographs of some Gondophares coins, see Medlycott, India and the Apostle Thomas, London, 1905 , or in ICHC I p.191, or STCEI I Montage inside front cover, and A Guide to Taxila, plate III (18).)

From the time of the discovery of these coins there has been hardly any scholar who doubted the North Indian visits of Thomas, even among those who continued to have reservations about the person's south Indian sojourn. However this accidental discovery made the western scholars attack the credibility of Thomas' south Indian visits much more vehemently and even venomously. But here also numismatic discoveries shed some much needed scientific light to these critics' chagrin.

4.01 In 1847 a most fascinating discovery of Roman coins was reported from Kottayam near Kannur (British Malabar), yet another evidence for the existence of a great deal of trade between Kerala and the west in the first centuries B.C./A.D. The purity of the gold, one of the reasons for the acceptability of Roman coins all over the then known world, attracted the notice of the jewellers, and the wealthier natives who had purchased them melted them down for ornaments. Almost the whole of the massive hoard was lost irretrievably in this way. However, 51 coins believed to be from this hoard are included in Catalogue No. 2 of the
Madras Museum by Edgar Thurston(1894). These belong to the issues of Augustus (10), Tiberius (4), Caligula(4), Claudius (15), Nero(13), and Ant. Pius(5).

4.02 The next significant and properly documented discovery of Roman coins in Kerala was from Iyyal , very near Palayoor in the Trichur District, the location of one of the seven Malabar or west coast churches the founding of which is traditionally and in the Rambhan song attributed to St. Thomas. In an earthern jar discovered by Tharayil Karuppan Krishnan there were 34 punch-marked coins, 12 Roman gold coins, and 71 Roman silver coins. The entire hoard was acquired by the Arch. Dept. of the erstwhile
Cochin State, and were at the Trichur Arch. Museum and have recently been tranferred to the Numismatic Study Centre, Nedumangadu. The hoard covers a period between 123 B.C. and 117 A.D. The denarii are from the periods of the Republic, Octavian & Agustus BC 27 - AD 14, Tiberius AD 14 - 37, Claudius 41 - 54, and Nero 54 - 68. The aureii belong to the issue of Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and Trajan. (Classified and pubd., P.L.Gupta, 1965, Early Coins of Kerala, Dept. of Arch.,Trivandmum. ) Touching these coins one has the exhilarating feeling that some of these might have been in the pouch or Madisheela or purse of Thomas on his way to or from Palayoor. Photos: in Gupta (op.cit.); Menachery, Kodungalloor City of St. Thomas, Kodungalloor, 1987, p.47; and in SATHYAMURTHY, Catalogue of Roman Gold Coins, Dept. of Arch., Kerala, Trivandrum, 1992. Description also in MENACHERY, Pallikkalakalum Mattum, (Malayalam), Trichur, 1984 repr. from the Express July 1978.

4.03 During the last decade, in September 1983, when workers were digging in the compound of Smt. Madhavi Amma, wife of Pazhuparambil Vasu of Valuvally near N. Parur a few miles from Kodungallur (both Parur and Kodungalloor are sites of churches founded by the apostle), a pot containing reportedly two thousand coins was discovered. Before Madhavi Amma came to know of it many coins had found their way to the various toddy and arrack shops of the area. When this writer visited the spot in one or two days' time many more coins had disappeared. By the time Police investigations were thoroughly and systematically completed many more coins had vanished. Finally the Arch. dept. could acquire from the District Collector an even smaller number, a paltry 252 coins. These are now at the Numismatic Study Centre, Nedumangadu. Most of the coins are mint-fresh and include coins from Nero to Antonius Pius with representations from the issues of all emperors in between. All these coins have been published now (1992) by the Arch. Dept., by Dr. Satyamoorthy, with detailed classifications and photographs of the O. & R. sides.

4.04 In this connection it may be interesting to note that the Kerala Archaeology Dept. and the Geology Dept. of the Govt. of India functioning at Trivandrum together held a consultation recently under the inspiration of the 'cultural secretary' Dr. Babu Paul to decide on a programme to investigate the gold and gold coins that might lie buried at the Kodungalloor harbour from the beginning of at least the first century B.C., and to chart a scheme to salvage such material lost in Kodungallur on the Malabar coast of the Arabian Sea. In any case the numismatic findings and studies have added much strength to the credibility of the Thomas story as they provide strong and tangible proof of the considerable intercourse that existed between Kerala and
Alexandria / Rome in the first century B.C. ./ A.D. especially from the middle of the first century A.D. and as these findings are mostly in the vicinity of the Thomas churches.

A word about Kodungallur and its special relationship to the Syrian Churches of Kerala and another word about the special relationship that has existed between gold and India in general and gold and Kerala in particular especially the Palayur-Kodungallur-Parur belt may not be out of place here.

4.05 The city of Kodungalloor, known variously by Muziris, Shinkli, Cranganore and by many another name (K.P.P. Menon lists more than a dozen names for Kodungalluur from Al Biruni, 970 A.D. to Assemani, 1510) down the centuries, stood at the meeting-place of different trade routes connecting the East with the West and the North with the South.These trade-routes, which carried the bulk of the traffic passing by sea between India and foreign parts, played an all important part in the history of Cranganore. While the monsoon route connected Muziris directly across the Arabian Sea with cities in the west (e.g. Alexandria, Aden), the west coastal route gave its ships ready access to the Indus (leading to Taxila / Gandhara) and Ctesiphon by land and beyond to Ormuz and Mesopotamia. A third route, hugging the coast of
east Asia linked the coastal capital of the imperial Cheras with the mouth of the Ganges and with China. We need not here dwell on the importance of Kodungalloor or Maliankara or Malankara as the first landing place of Apostle Thomas on this coast.

4.06 The PERIPLUS has this remark : "There are imported here in the first place a great quantity of coin...". The Roman coukl, it is believed make a profit on the sale of gold coin in India, perhaps because these were not only used as currency but also for ornament as is evidenced by the fact that many gold coins found in Kerala have been pierced through to make necklaces. (Also see THOMAS P.J., Roman Trade Centres in Malabar , Kerala Society Papers, II, p. 260 ; James Hough, The History of Christianity in India , I, p.28.) "It should not escape notice that gold and silver, after circulating in every quarter of the globe, come at length to be absorbed in Hindustan", Sir George BIRDWOOD, p.101. Herodotus tells us that
India is the wealthiest and most populous country on earth. As Sir George has again remarked, "The entire record of the intercourse bewtween countries of the west and India from the very earliest times to the present day may be said to be the story of the struggle for the Indian trade". "As is well known Columbus was on the lookout for Kerala pepper when he stumbled on America. It was pepper that brought Vasco da Gama to Malabar," P.THOMAS, in Christians and Christianity in India and Pakistan, London, 1954, pp. 6,7.

Even today
India is the world's biggest importer of gold. Even today gold fetches a higher price in India and especially Kerala. Kerala's Calicut airport at Karippur accounts for the largest import of gold in India, it along with its environs also accounts for the largest quantity of smuggled gold.

4.07 Visitors present here from outside the state and outside the country, especially the fairer half, may enjoy a visit to the Jewellery shops in Kottayam, Ernakulam, and Trichur for some of the best craftsmanship in gold anywhere in the world. It won't be an accident if you find most of the best known gold shops are run by Nazranies from the Kodungallur-Palayur belt, mostly from the Trichur area. The names of Syrian families like Alappatt, Chemmannur, Chettupuzha, Chirakkakkaren, Chiriyankandath, Josco, Palathingal, Thottan etc. are well known to gold connoisseurs all over Kerala and outside it. This 2000 year old tradition in gold makes Trichur near the Cheran's Royal city Kodungallur the Gold Capital of Kerala, with its hundreds of reputed jewellery shops, and this also has helped it to be considered even today the Cultural Capital of the State.

5.01 A further point of difficulty in reconciling the Kerala tradition concerning St. Thomas was this: While the sea provided excellent means of transportation to travellers from the Malabar or west coast to the Maabar or east coast and vice versa by rounding the cape, especially to strangers unaccustomed to the hardships of land travel from coast to coast in the risky terrain of the Ghats and forests, Thomas is invariably described in Kerala tradition as crossing between the Arabian sea coast and the coast of the Bay of Bengal by land, and apparently doing so with considerable ease. But Indian Ocean studies have conclusively proved that in the first centuries it was very risky for ships, especially foreign ships, to round Cape Comorin, on account of the rough and unpredictable waters. And now it is amply clear that the three lands of the Cheras, Cholas, and the Pandyas were connected by excellent roads. This is proved beyond doubt from the constant journeys made by the Sangham poets and poetesses as described in the Purananoor and Akananoor and even the Pathittupattu.

5.02 But the most arresting evidence for this inland traffic between the southern kingdoms is provided by numismatics. Discovery of Roman coins have been reported in Pollachi (1805), Karur (1806),
Coimbatore (1817), Vellalur (1841). Even today chance Roman coins are being picked up in the route between ancient Muziris and Karur and between Karur and the east coast. Every annual meeting of the various numismatic societies bring some new discoveries of this field to light. The large number of Chera coins even today found in the riverbed at Karur and environs must be seen to be believed. This permanently put to rest any doubts one might have had about the accuracy and authenticity of the Kerala Tradition concerning the Apostle's journeys. The fact that the saint is usually represented in Kerala and Tamilnadu as carry ing a lance or thrishoolam instead of the traditional Mattom or set-square may indicate not only the martyrdom but the usual appearance of the man much travelled in the dangerous land of snakes and tigers.

5.03 What is most astonishing about the researches into the historicity of f.i. Thoma's Indian visits is the agreement of newly discovered data almost without exception with details known earlier. It gladdens the heart of the student when it is found that whenever a bit of new, authentic knowledge, is forthcoming that concerns the matter it has a tendency to invariably fall into place in the jig-saw puzzle and to untie the tangle of uncertainties. This comment will be appropriate if made again at the end of the a study of recent advances made in fields other than numismatics also, such as Archaeology, Geology, Geography, Ocean studies, Epigraphy, Anthropology, Art, Architecture, Culture, etc. into which we are not entering now for lack of time.!



The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia

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It encompasses within a single work our present knowledge of every aspect of Indian Christianity... Its faith,liturgy,scripture....the culture,habits,trends it has given birth to its contribution to art, architecture, language, literature, music, education.. to art, philosophy, social service... every other feature of the great Christian Tradition in India... from the most distant past to the present day... from its hold on the far North to its heroic story in the far South... its origins and spread in the West and East of the subcontinent... and its successes and failures in taking the message to hitherto unapproachable areas especially under the changed Indian circumstances now obtaining.

The St.Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India is a reference work on India in general and on Indian Christianity in Particular. In addition to a wealth of statistical information and directory material, specialist essays have been contributed by hundreds of Archaeologists, Anthropologists, Artists, Historians, Educators, Biographers, Lexicographers and Researchers.

Indian Church History Classics Vol. I The Nazranies


A Great Cultural Achievement  of Indian Christianity


The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India
Pallinada  OLLUR 680306 India


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