The first Christians in India, according to tradition and legend, were
converted by Saint Thomas the Apostle, who arrived on the Malabar Coast of India
in A.D. 52. After evangelizing and performing miracles in Kerala and Tamil Nadu,
he is believed to have been martyred in Madras and buried on the site of San
Thome Cathedral. Members of the Syro-Malabar Church, an eastern rite of the
Roman Catholic Church, adopted the Syriac liturgy dating from fourth century
Antioch. They practiced what is also known as the Malabar rite until the arrival
of the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century. Soon thereafter, the Portuguese
attempted to latinize the Malabar rite, an action which, by the mid-sixteenth
century, led to charges of heresy against the Syro-Malabar Church and a lengthy
round of political machinations. By the middle of the next century, a schism
occurred when the adherents of the Malankar rite (or Syro-Malankara Church)
broke away from the Syro-Malabar Church. Fragmentation continued within the Syro-Malabar
Church up through the early twentieth century when a large contingent left to
join the Nestorian Church, which had had its own roots in India since the sixth
or seventh century. By 1887, however, the leaders of the Syro-Malabar Church had
reconciled with Rome, which formally recognized the legitimacy of the Malabar
rite. The Syro-Malankara Church was reconciled with Rome in 1930 and, while
retaining the Syriac liturgy, adopted the Malayalam language instead of the
ancient Syriac language.
Throughout this period, foreign missionaries made numerous converts to Christianity. Early Roman Catholic missionaries, particularly the Portuguese, led by the Jesuit Saint Francis Xavier (1506-52), expanded from their bases on the west coast making many converts, especially among lower castes and outcastes. The miraculously undecayed body of Saint Francis Xavier is still on public view in a glass coffin at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa. Beginning in the eighteenth century, Protestant missionaries began to work throughout India, leading to the growth of Christian communities of many varieties.
The total number of Christians in India according to the 1991 census was 19.6 million, or 2.3 percent of the population. About 13.8 million of these Christians were Roman Catholics, including 300,000 members of the Syro-Malankara Church. The remainder of Roman Catholics were under the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India. In January 1993, after centuries of self-government, the 3.5-million-strong Latin-rite Syro-Malabar Church was raised to archepiscopate status as part of the Roman Catholic Church. In total, there were nineteen archbishops, 103 bishops, and about 15,000 priests in India in 1995.
Most Protestant denominations are represented in India, the result of missionary activities throughout the country, starting with the onset of British rule. Most denominations, however, are almost exclusively staffed by Indians, and the role of foreign missionaries is limited. The largest Protestant denomination in the country is the Church of South India, since 1947 a union of Presbyterian, Reformed, Congregational, Methodist, and Anglican congregations with approximately 2.2 million members. A similar Church of North India has 1 million members. There are 473,000 Methodists, 425,000 Baptists, and about 1.3 million Lutherans. Orthodox churches of the Malankara and Malabar rites total 2 million and 700,000 members, respectively.
All Christian churches have found the most fertile ground for expansion among Dalits, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribe groups. During the twentieth century, the fastest growing Christian communities have been located in the northeast, among the Khasis, Mizos, Nagas, and other hill tribes. Christianity offers a non-Hindu mode of acculturation during a period when the state and modern economy have been radically transforming the life-styles of the hill peoples. Missionaries have led the way in the development of written languages and literature for many tribal groups. Christian churches have provided a focus for unity among different ethnic groups and have brought with them a variety of charitable services.