St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, Thiruvithancode/Thiruvithamcode
The Arapalli at Thiruvithancode Kanyakumari is one of the oldest standing landmarks of Christian faith in South India, built during the first half of the 1st Century AD. The Arapally/Arapalli means "Temple of the King." The first christian temple in South India established by St. Thomas was surrounded by the house of the earliest Jewish Christian families of the South, whose followers later became the Syrian Orthodox Church of Kerala. AS per Travancore Census, there were a few Jewish families residing here in Kanyakumari district till the end of the first half of the 20th Century. Later they migrated to more dense settlements many of which remain here in India. The Thiruvithancode Arapalli is 25 ft long, 16 ft wide & 10 ft high and is now situated on a 25 cent plot that has shrunk over time.
The walls of the Arapallin in Thiruvithamcode was made of chiseled-to-cube stones, each weighing in excess of 100 kg. There are three doors to enter the Church – two samller ones on the sides & the main door at the front. The roof of the church which were added later is said to have been designed in the shape of the Jerusalem Temple.
St. Thomas is believed to have left northwest India when invasion threatened and traveled by vessel to the Malabar coast, possibly visiting southeast Arabia and Socotra en route, and landing at the former flourishing port of Muziris (modern-day North Paravur and Kodungalloor)(c. 51–52 AD) in the company of a Jewish merchant Abbanes (Hebban).
From there St. Thomas is said to have preached the gospel throughout the Malabar Coast. The various churches he founded were located mainly on the Periyar River basin and its tributaries and along the coast, where there were Jewish colonies. He reputedly preached to all classes of people and had about 17,000 converts, including members of the four principal castes. Later, stone crosses were erected at the places where churches were founded, and they became pilgrimage centres. In accordance with apostolic custom, Thomas ordained teachers and leaders or elders, who were reported to be the earliest ministry of the Malabar Church.
Historical Evidence of St. Thomas in South India:
St. Thomas is believed by the Thomas Christian tradition to have established Ezharappallikal or Seven and half churches in Kerala. These churches are at Kodungallur, Palayoor, Kottakkavu (Paravur), Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Nilackal (Chayal), Kollam and Thiruvithamcode (half church).
Historian Vincent A. Smith says, “It must be admitted that a personal visit of the Apostle Thomas to South India was easily feasible in the traditional belief that he came by way of Socotra, where an ancient Christian settlement undoubtedly existed. I am now satisfied that the Christian church of South India is extremely ancient...”.
A Syrian ecclesiastical calendar of an early date confirms the above and gives the merchant a name. The entry reads: "3 July, St. Thomas who was pierced with a lance in 'India'. His body is in Urhai (Edessa) having been brought there by the merchant Khabin. A great festival." The Malankara Orthodox church celebrates his feast on three days, every 3rd July (in memory of the relic translation to Edessa), 18 December (the Day he was lanced) and 21 December (when he died).
The Didascalia (dating from the end of the 3rd century) states, “India and all countries around it, even to the farthest seas... received the apostolic ordinances from Judas Thomas, who was a guide and ruler in the church which he built.”
In the 16th-century work Jornada, Antonio Gouvea writes of ornate crosses known as Saint Thomas Crosses. It is also known as Nasrani Menorah or Mar Thoma Sliba. These crosses date from the 6th century and are found in a number of churches in Kerala, Mylapore and Goa. Jornada is the oldest known written document to refer to this type of cross as a St. Thomas Cross. Gouvea also writes about the veneration of the Cross at Cranganore, referring to the cross as "Cross of Christians". It is widely perceived as the symbol of Saint Thomas Christians.
One such cross carved in stone is seen at the Thiruvithancode Arapalli too. Though the Arapalli is of great historical importance and a Heritage Symbol to the Christian community of the South India, more than half the local populace doesn’t still know one such exists near them. The Tourism Development Department of the Government has also shown no interest in the development of such Heritage sites in the South neither has Intach. The site is being maintained by the Malanakara Syrian Church.