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The Cross of Anuradhapura

The Cross is the primary symbol of the Christian faith representing the cross on which Jesus Christ died. It is the most venerated symbol among them. In fact every Catholic commences prayer, both public and private, making the ‘Sign of the Cross.’ The veneration of this symbol is a very ancient devotion among Christians and this veneration reaches a climax during the Holy Week on Good Friday. The most ancient representation perhaps, of this symbol on stone, is attributed in our part of the world, to an Apostle of Jesus Himself who came to India in 52 A.D.

It is a fact clearly admitted that Christianity entered the South Asian region through India. In a recent article published in India Perspectives - Vol 24 No. 4/2010 Balmiki Prasad Singh, currently Governor of Sikkim and a distinguished scholar, thinker and public servant is quoted writing Christianity came to India well before it went to several European countries. He writes further - Both Judaism and Christianity came to India in the first century itself. (Pgs 40-41)

A symbol of a Cross attributed to this Apostle is the most ancient symbol of Christianity found so far, in Sri Lanka too. It is the Cross discovered during archeological excavations in Anuradhapura. This was discovered in 1912 first by the then chief draughtsman of the Archeological Department Muhandiram P. D. A. Wickremasuriya.


A portrait of the cross which was found during excavations in Anuradhapura

Wickremasuriya quickly informed the Archeological Commissioner at the time E. R. Ayrton of this unusual find. Ayrton who examined the object hastily concluded that this was a Portuguese Cross, and said so. Ayrton died soon and was succeeded by A. M. Hocart. Hocart was more careful in examining the object and made reference to it in his publication the Archeological Survey of Ceylon dated 1924. He wrote - In F,7, lying on the floor level, was a fragment of a rectangular column on which is cut in sunk relief, a cross of a floreate type standing on a stepped pedestal from which emanate two fronds on each side of the cross like horns. (A frond is an organ-like leaf usually bearing fructification.)

He adds further - It is extremely improbable that this column belongs to the house, rather I should suppose that it, and four fragments in room 2, were carried off from some ruined building in the vicinity and that building probably a church. (Archeological Survey of Ceylon, 1912 - 13, pg. 5)

Hocart too was of the opinion that this Cross belonged to the Portuguese period because of the similarity that it had to a Cross discovered in Kotte (Kingdom). Because of this similarity he concluded that the Portuguese had penetrated Anuradhapura at the time, and that the ancient citadel was then largely inhabited.

Hocart had been completely wrong in this latter presumption and this could be easily proved. The first reason to prove his presumption erroneous is the fact that the Portuguese could not locate Anuradhapura until the beginning of the 17th century as our historical records clearly indicate. A Franciscan missionary named Fr. Francisco Negrao, who worked in Sri Lanka from 1610 - 1629, was the first European to mention the ruins of Anuradhapura.

Fr. Negrao was the first European to count the 1,600 pillars of the Brazen Palace. The famous historian of the Portuguese period Fernao De Queyroz himself mentions the futile attempts made by the Portuguese on the orders of the King of Portugal to discover Anuradhapura, and describes how he later got all the information about Anuradhapura from Fr. Negrao.

Portuguese Cross

The second reason for the erroneous supposition of Hocart is the fact that the ‘Portuguese Cross’ of Kotte, to which he compared the cross discovered in Anuradhapura, was in fact not a Portuguese cross but a second cross of St. Thomas origin, which was already here in Sri Lanka, and discovered by the Portuguese on their arrival.

Besides the Cross in Anuradhapura there had been two other crosses of St. Thomas origin in Sri Lanka. Fernao de Queyroz in his book “The Spiritual and Temporal Conquest of Ceylon” has recorded this as follows - “In the suburb of Colombo the church of the Apostle St. Thomas, where resided the father of the Christians...........there was preserved a Cross on a small column stone; one of those which the glorious apostle worked with his own hands, and it was the second which they had in Ceylon.” (The Spiritual and Temporal Conquest of Ceylon - p. 715)

H. W. Codrington, well-known for his intimate knowledge of Sri Lankan history and matters Syriac, was very positive that the Anuradhapura Cross belonged to the Persian Christians of St. Thomas. He says that this is really “a Persian Christian Cross” and is almost identical with the cross of St. Thomas discovered by the Portuguese in 1547 on the Mount of St. Thomas in Mylapore, South India.

During the early period after the discovery of the Anuradhapura Cross there was much discussion and doubt as to whether this was a symbol of the Catholic community or whether this was something of the Nestorian sect. In fact some of our eminent historians like His Lordship Bishop Edmund Peiris OMI described it as the Nestorian Cross of Anuradhapura. This is quite understandable because much of the research that has been done in recent times was not available to them in their time.

It has to be remembered that the Portuguese, due more to political expediency than ignorance, presumed any Christian community that preceded them in these parts of the world to be heretical and branded them so. The most convenient brand at hand in this region at the time was the ‘heretical Nestorian.’ The clearest case of such branding was with the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Christians (St. Thomas Christians) in Kerala.

Ronald Roberson, CSP, who holds a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and was a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for promoting Christian Unity, in his book The Eastern Christian Church - a Brief Survey, dealing directly about The Thomas Christians, writes “Portuguese colonization was the beginning of a sad history of forced latinization that caused unrest and schisms......Today their descendants, who number about 800,000, are divided into five churches.....” (pg. 18)

Lorenzo Cappelletti contributing an article “From Mesopotamia to China” to the journal ‘30 Days’ - In the Church and the World - N. 12 Year 2010 writes - “Marco Polo’s surprise when he came across Christians in the far off lands of China is matched today by that of the majority of Christians in the West when they hear of the existence of Christian communities surviving from very early times to the east of the Roman Empire, in the boundless territories of Central Asia, from Persia to India and China.

These communities are somewhat hastily described as Nestorian because at the time of the Council of Ephesus (431), which condemned Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, they remained faithful to the theological tradition of Antioch, from where Nestorius came, against the radicalization of the Alexandrian theological current (with foresight since, it must be said it was leading to Monophysite distortions). But also because, even before the Council of Ephesus, they aimed to distance themselves from the Roman State Church.” (pg 36 - 37).

Remarkable resemblance

In this background one could well imagine that the cross found in Anuradhapura could also be easily attributed to a Nestorian community that lived at that time in Sri Lanka. However, Bishop Edmund Peiris OMI admitted that there was a remarkable resemblance between the ‘Anuradhapura Cross’ and the ‘Bleeding Cross’ of St. Thomas, in the ancient chapel of St. Thomas’ Mount near Madras (now Chennai). (Ref: Catholic Christmas Annual - 1956 pg. 5)

Fr S G Perera S.J., the renowned Sri Lankan historian, has also made reference to this Cross. He says - “The more satisfactory confirmation of the presence of Christians in Anuradhapura is the Persian cross found in 1912 by the archeological department while excavating the citadel of Anuradhapura.” Having described the format of the Cross Fr. Perera states further - “It had been used as the foundation of a house and probably belonged to some ruined Christian building in the neighbourhood. The cross is undoubtedly Persian, and is very similar to the crosses found in the Syrian churches of Malabar. Another cross, described by the Portuguese a cross of St. Thomas, was found at Mutwal, a suburb of Colombo, at the mouth of the Kelani River, in early Portuguese times. As the Kelani was the outlet for the produce of the Kelani valley, and as the ancient township of Kolamba also stood at the mouth of a flood-outlet of the Kelani and was the chief mart of the Moors who succeeded the Persians in the carrying trade of Ceylon, it is not improbable that the Mutwal cross is also a relic of the presence of Persian traders in Ceylon.” (Fr S G Perera SJ, Historical Sketches - Ceylon Church History - pgs. 10 - 11).

Making specific reference to the Cross in Colombo Fr. Perera states - “...by far the most ancient fact recorded of Colombo is that it once possessed a cross dating from the early period of Christianity. In the church of St. Thomas at Mutwal, there was preserved in Portuguese times a cross carved on a column of stone, which was ascribed to St. Thomas the Apostle.” (Idem - pg. 71)

Recent researchers have discovered a Christian presence in Asia long before the arrival of the Portuguese or any other ‘evangelizing’ Western Power. Besides a volume of other interesting facts and artifacts, it is interesting to note here that a number of other Crosses have been discovered also in other countries in Asia. Wilhelm Baum and Dietmar W. Winkler in their book “The Church of the East” - A concise history - refers to some of these. Having made reference to the Cross in Anuradhapura they go on to state - “Other stone monuments include six surviving East Syriac crosses with a Pahlavi inscription - one on Mount Thomas in Mylapore near Madras, four in the vicinity of Kottayam, and one in Travancore in Kerala - which all bear the same Middle Persian inscription, including the appeal of Gabriel, son of Chahabokht, that the Messiah have mercy on the donor of the cross. The crosses may date from the period of the sixth to ninth centuries.” (Wilhelm Baum and Dietmar W. Winkler - The Church of the East - pg - 53). In May 2000 a further Cross of the same period was discovered in Goa.

The great scholar and historian Bishop Edmund Peiris OMI was referred earlier in this article to have admitted a close resemblance of the Anuradhapura Cross to that of the ‘Bleeding Cross’ of Mylapore. The ‘Bleeding Cross’ also called the ‘Miraculous Cross’ was one that was accidentally discovered by the Portuguese on the Big Mount in 1547.

“Already in 1923 the Portuguese are said to have hit upon the ruins of an old chapel lying east-west on the Big Mount and in that year itself they had erected an oratory there (it was the year in which the old church of St. Thomas was rebuilt.) In March 1547 while digging the foundations for a new church, other ruined foundations were unearthed and a stone-cross was found face downwards among the ruins. This was on 23 March 1547. (M. A. Mundadan -History of Christianity in India - Vol. I, pg 422)

This cross is believed to be that on which St. Thomas laid down his life. It is said to have had traces of his blood and said to change colour periodically and sweat water. This unusual phenomenon is reported to have happened on 18th December almost every year in the course of a few years. These miracles are clearly recorded by the pastors of the shrine and witnessed by thousands of pilgrims. What happened in 1558 on the feast day of the Expectation of Our Lady is recorded in detail with references also to the scientific examination of this event by the renowned Indian historian A. M. Mundadan. (A.M. Mundadan - History of Christianity in India, Vol. I, pgs. 422-24).

Martin Palmer the director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture (ICOREC) and author of many books on religious topics clearly shows that the Cross seems to have been a great symbol used by the early Christians in Asia. In one of his latest publications (2001) he writes extensively of early Christianity in China and also the Crosses of Ladakh, Tibet (now part of India.) He writes -”Carved into a large boulder in Tankse, Ladakh, once part of Tibet now India, are three crosses and some inscriptions. ....The crosses are clearly of the Church of the East....” (Martin Palmer - The Jesus Sutras, pg. 9).

Manuscript evidence

According to John England, “There is now some agreement that amongst the Episcopal and metropolitan sees recorded for the churches of the East from the fourth to the sixteenth centuries, those for India and China include in their jurisdiction a number of South East Asian episcopates. Some manuscript evidence in early chronicles and correspondence confirms this for such places as Ceylon, Malaya, Indo-China and Indonesia.” (John C. England and Archee Lee - The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia - 1993 p. 133)

Mentioning some of the places in Asia where crosses have been found John England refers to the cross in Anuradhapura too. He writes - “By the sixth century, we have crosses and inscriptions from Sri Lanka and Turkistan....” In the next three centuries would be added the large collections of crosses ....from Kirghizstan (ninth to fourteenth centuries).....Tibet and South China.”

Most of our historians have relied on the evidence of Cosmos Indicopleustes who wrote in the sixth century that - “Even in Taprobane, and island in Further India, where the Indian sea is, there is a church of Christians, with clergy and a body of believers, but I know not whether there be any Christians in the parts beyond it.” (Cosmos Indicopleustes - Christian Typography, edited with English Translations by J. M. McCrindle, London: Hakluyt Society, 1897 p.118 quoted by T V Philip p. 155).

Main interest

Dr. T V Philip an Indian Church historian and ecumenist making his observations on this statement of Cosmos says - “From the above observations of Cosmos it is often assumed that in Ceylon in the sixth century there were only Persian Christians who settled there and there were no indigenous Christians. We need to remember that Cosmos was a Persian and a Nestorian and it is understandable if his main interest was in the Persian Christian communities in places which he mentioned in his book. Moreover, he did not personally visit all the places he mentions and did not claim to have made a complete survey of Christianity in those places.” (T V Philip, East of the Euphrates - Early Christianity in Asia, p.155). By the very fact that Cosmos writes “I do not know whether there be any Christians in the parts beyond it” it is clear that he is not making a blanket observation about all the Christian communities in Sri Lanka at that time. Furthermore, there is no evidence to connect the Anuradhapura cross with a Nestorian community that is supposed to have lived in Sri Lanka.

Once again as Dr. Philip says in his book - “We do not know when Christianity came to Ceylon, probably earlier than the sixth century as there were Christian communities in South India from the first century onwards.

It is also probable that there were indigenous Christians in Ceylon (other than the Persian Christians who settled there) from the beginnings of Christianity in Ceylon. Just as it happened in South India the East Syrian influence might have been felt in Ceylon through Persian merchants and missionaries, and/or perhaps through the St. Thomas Christians in South India at least from the fifth century onwards. A series of stone inscriptions and coins record the ‘presence of foreign Christian high officers at the service of Sinhala kings’ from AD 473 to 508 and the conversion of one of these kings.” (John England - p. 118, quoted by T.V. Philip, p. 155).

This article does not warrant a full exposition of the presence of Christians in pre-Portuguese Sri Lanka. However, very briefly it could be stated that Catholic missionaries have been in Sri Lanka from the first century. And this includes one of the Lord’s twelve Apostles - St. Thomas. If he was here, it could be safely concluded that subsequently his own disciples and converts from India also continued their interest in Sri Lanka, a country in such close proximity to South India.

A document found in China gives a very interesting description of the Cross as also seen in the Anuradhapura Cross and now symbolized in our Catholic Flag. It is described as follows - “In the cross rising from the lotus, the passion of Christianity finds its place in the Eastern symbol of being rooted in this world but rising above it to full beauty and fulfillment.” (Martin Palmer - The Jesus Sutras, pg. 9).

The pedestal on which the cross stands represents the earth which has high land and low.

Out of this earthly pond arise two lotuses (on either side) which symbolize the wisdom of the world (its thinking, philosophies etc). In other words beautiful lotuses sprout out of the earthly pond.

But, just as the lotus comes to fullness in bloom only when it receives the rays of light from the sun, the wisdom of the world blooms only when it receives enlightment from Christ the Light of the World (symbolized by the cross which is shown shedding light at the upright top extreme and transverse beams). From the above it could be safely concluded that the Cross in Anuradhapura is a cross of St. Thomas design, and not a Nestorian Cross.

It could have well been either from a religious building of Persian merchants resident in Sri Lanka or a group of St. Thomas Christians, local or non-local, resident in the city.

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