As the Catholicos of the East had promised the emigrants that he would send from time to time bishops to India, Uraha Mar Yousef had successors till the end of the 16th century. Under the East Syrian Bishops, the Knanaya Community had their own churches and priests distinct from those of the non-Knanaya St Thomas Christians. This system continued also under the Latin Rite European bishops, who governed the St Thomas Christians. When a ritual separation was effected for the Catholics in Kerala between the Orientals and Latins in 1887, all the Knanaya Catholics de facto were in the Apostolic Vicariate of Kottayam, and the Holy See ordered Bishop Charles Lavigne to appoint a separate Vicar General for the Knanaya Community. When the Vicariates Apostolic were re-organized into Trichur, Ernakulam and Changanassery and three indigenous bishops were appointed for the Syro-Malabarians in 1896 the bishop appointed for the Vicariate of Changanassery was Mar Mathew Makil, the former Vicar General for the Knanaya Community.
On August 29, 1911 a new Vicariate Apostolic of Kottayam was erected exclusively for the Knanaya Community by the Apostolic letter “In Universi Christiani” of His Holiness Pope St Pius X. On December 21, 1923 the Vicariate Apostolic of Kottayam was raised to an Eparchy by Pope Pius XI. When the territorial limits of the Syro-Malabar Church was extended in 1955, the jurisdiction of the Eparchy of Kottayam also was made co-extensive with the then extended territory of the Syro-Malabar Church.
On December 23, 2003 His Holiness Pope John Paul II made a sovereign decision that the status quo (pro gente suddistica) of the Eparchy of Kottayam must be maintained and left it to the Bishops’ Synod of the Syro-Malabar church to decide on the desired enhancement of the juridical status of the Eparchy of Kottayam. In November 2004 the synod gave its consent to elevate the Eparchy of Kottayam to the rank of a metropolitan see without a suffrogan eparchy. On March 21, 2005 the congregation for the oriental churches issued a letter of no-objection to the decision of the Bishop’s synod. Accordingly, on may 9, 2005 the Major Archbishop Mar Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil issued the decree “The Eparchy of Kottayam” elevating the Eparchy of Kottayam to the rank of a metropolitan see, and another decree “God our loving father”, appointing Mar Kuriakose Kunnacherry as the first metropolitan of the newly erected metropolitan see of Kottayam. On June 3, 2005, the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, at a liturgical service the Major Archbishop canonically erected the metropolitan see of Kottayam and ordained and enthroned Mar Kuriakose Kunnacherry as the first Metropolitan of Kottayam.
In the year 345 A.D., one Knai Thomman, a rich international merchant, and 72 families from Cana (Middle East), belonging to East Syrian Church (Chaldean), immigrated to Malabar (presently Kerala) and established their colony. In the group there were also priests, deacons and their bishop. Knai Thomman and his people were welcomed by Cheraman Perumal, the Emperor, and were given permission to settle down in Kodungalloor. They built a town in Kodungalloor with a church and 72 houses. The natives called it Mahadevar Pattanam meaning "town of superiors". Later, Cheraman Perumal bestowed them with many princely privileges, and it was recorded on copper plates (Knai Thomman Cheppedu) given to Knai Thomman.
Knanaya Christians are the descendants of these Jewish Christian immigrants in Kerala. They were also called Southists (Thekkumbhagar) because they lived on the south side of Kodungalloor. The St. Thomas Christians (native Christians of Kerala) who lived on the north side of Kodungalloor were known as Northists (Vadakkumbhagar). Another tradition is that Knananites settled down on the south side of Periyar river while the native Christians lived on the north side of the river. It is also stated that Knananites were called Southists because they came from the southern kingdom of Judah.
Knanaya Christians are seen not only among the Catholics but also among the Orthodox Christians of Kerala, because when a group of Thomas Christians joined Jacobitism, among them there were Knanaya Christians too. They observe many rituals and traditions which are very peculiar to their own community. Even today, the Knananites continue to be an endogamous community. In order to keep the purity of their race and ethnicity, they do not
marry any one outside their community. They also keep away from evangelizing and converting others to Christianity. If anybody is converted to Christianity, such a person won't be accepted in the community. Though this sense of "purity" is a distorted one, and is against basic Christian mission, it is acknowledged by Rome by establishing a separate diocese (Kottayam) for the Knanaya Catholics. A Knanaya Catholic can marry a Knanaya Jacobite, but cannot marry another Catholic even one who belongs to the same rite! It seems, Knananites are more proud of being Jewish than being "Christian.
Knanaya Catholic Community
Kerala is one of the twenty five states of India, situated at the southern most part of the peninsula. The Christian population of Kerala is 22% as against 2.5% of the Indian average. Among the innumerable Christian sects in Kerala, Catholics form the majority. There are three rites among the Kerala Catholics, namely the Roman rite, and the Oriental rites of Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara. The oriental rites are commonly called "St. Thomas Christians" as they are the descendants of those converted by St. Thomas, the Apostle when he preached in India from 52 AD. The followers of the Syro-Malabar rite form the majority of Catholics. The Syro-Malabar church of Kerala is very active, vibrant and growing, faithful to the doctrines of the universal church, very rich in vocations and very traditional in family values. Syro-Malabar church is growing to outside Kerala and India. There are 21 eparchies for this church, 12 in Kerala and 9 outside Kerala. The Syro-Malabar church was raised to an Archiepiscopal church in January 1993. It is the preparation to make it a patriarchal church in future.
In the Syro-Malabar church there is a small group called "Southists" in the church documents and "Knanaya Catholics". It is an ethnic group, and endogamous community which has its own distinct traditions, customs and culture. They are spread through out the world. This 200,000+ strong community is under the Bishop of Kottayam, who enjoys personal jurisdiction over all Knanaya Catholics. When interaction between nations and people grew stronger and development in science and technology helped it, and the goodness of the human heart boosted the idea that the world is one human family with diverse cultures, beliefs, and other traits, Knanaya Catholics found their way abroad to many countries. The United States of America is the most country of their emigration. As people who long preserved their unique traditions and customs, even now they are keen on preserving them for the next generation.
Origin and Growth of the Knanaya Community
The Knanaya people trace their origin back to the 72 Mesopotamian Christian families who immigrated to India and settled in Kerala in AD 345. Mesopotamia was part of the Babylonian empire. The immigrants were part of Jewish Christian community which took special care to preserve some of its Jewish-cultural traits. They were under the jurisdiction of the Catholicos of the East in Seleucia-Ctesiphon. This church also trace it's origin to the apostle St. Thomas in that it was established by the preaching of his disciple Mar Mari. The Catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon came to know the sad plight of the Indian church through traders who had been trading with India. As directed by the Catholicos, a merchant called Thomas Kinayi (Kinan) organized an immigration of 72 families from seven tribes of Jewish Christians. They were accompanied by Bishop Mar Joseph of Uraha, (also called Uruck and it is the present Warka in Iraq) and four priests and a few deacons. On reaching the Kerala cost (at that time called Malabar Coast) Thomas Kinayi visited the ruling King Cheraman Perumal and obtained from him land and some highly esteemed privileges. (The deed can be found here). This community began to be called "Knananites" or "Southists" after their prominent leader Thomas Kinayi. The influx these immigrants with a Bishop and Clergy invigorated the existing Indian church, enabling it to prosper in India as a privileged community.
The Knanaya community remained as an endogamous community following Judeo-Christian traditions. In the course of centuries these traditions have been kept up from generation to generation. These traditions and privileges were recorded in the form of folk songs which were used with or without a dance form called "Margam Kali" (Dance of the way of Jesus) on religious and festive occasions. These folk songs, dance, endogamy, various customs at marriage, funeral, Passover and various occasions and a number of other things constitute the unique Knanaya culture. Though many of them are not connected with liturgical functions, all of them are religious in overtone. The first immigrants were Judeo-Christians who kept up many Jewish Traditions. Before embarking on ships at Uz the immigrants under the leadership of Thomas Kinayi visited the Catholicos to get his blessing and went to the tomb of Ezra of the Old Testament and prayed to get his blessing. Ezra was a champion of pure lineage and endogamy among Jews. This explains the strict practice of endogamy among the Knananites. When the Christian community of Uz gathered to see the immigrants off, while kissing and embracing each other painful of parting, enjoined them of strict adherence to ten commandments, seven sacraments, endogamy, harmony and devote life.
Through out the history of 16 turbulent centuries the Knananites tried to be faithful to their original spirit. Their presence, the privileges they had, the clergy they maintained, all help the shape up and flourishing of the original Christianity in India which was at the crossroads. As endogamous community its numerical growth was limited and remained as minority. The community began to face problems from the onslaught of others. Community surmounted all these situations. The Holy See at the beginning of this century, took note of the affliction of this community and their challenges and issued a Papel Decree to establish a diocese solely for them. That is the Kottayam diocese.