Growing up, I would spend almost every one of my summers in a small ashram town in Tamil Nadu called Tiruvannamalai. I have fond memories of spending my time with my grandmother, having puri masala with the neighbours and spending evenings listening to bhajans in the beautiful, balmy evenings.

When I became a follower of Jesus, I wondered about my cultural history as a South Indian living in Tiruvannamalai. How could my rich cultural history and the beauty of my faith in Christ come together? In my journey, I have found amazing and profound links between the two.

Tamil Nadu and Indian Church History

The history of Christianity in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu has always been rich and consequential. According to one tradition, the apostle Thomas visited India in 52 CE, establishing several churches in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. He was ultimately killed and buried in Mylapore.

By the early 1900s, Tamil Nadu, then known as the Madras Presidency, was an administrative subdivision of the British Raj. During this time, Tamil Christian faith was lively, vibrant, and deeply active.

Most significantly, Tamil Christians played an important role in the Indian Independence Movement. As the scholar, Chandra Malampalli has noted in his monograph on Christian public engagement in colonial India, “An emerging professional class of Christian politicians, scholars, journalists, and lawyers situated themselves in relation to regional events, to the national Independence movement, and to developments within the wider Christian world.”

As we understand how these followers of Christ engaged with the Indian Independence Movement, we can understand how to love and serve India today.

I want to draw particular attention to what we can learn from three Tamil followers of Jesus who loved and impacted India in profound and positive ways.

Bishop V. S. Azariah: The Priority of Unity

Unity in the Church

Bishop Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah was the first Indian bishop to be consecrated in the Anglican Church. He was born in Tirunelveli in 1874. Throughout his dynamic career, he served as the founder of the Indian National Missionary Society. At one time, he served as the chairman of the National Christian Council of India (NCCI).

Throughout his life, Azariah deeply desired the unity of the church. It showed in his ferocious passion against caste divisions within the church. He also confronted the hierarchical mindset between British and Indian missionaries.

What we can learn from Azariah is his deep desire for unity

In an impassioned speech at the Edinburgh Conference in 1910, Azariah humbly acknowledged the work of many thoughtful missionaries. But he also challenged them to think of Indians not so much as subordinates but as equals.

He said, “Through all the ages to come, the Indian Church will rise in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labour of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us friends!”

Unity in the Nation

Azariah was a staunch patriot. He desired a united, independent India. In the 1905 Congress session at Benares, Azariah called for Indian self-rule and advocated for the Swadeshi movement, which championed pro-India products and services.

His passion for unity informed his social vision for how Christians would participate in culture. He did not want Indian Christians to be treated as a different communal electorate. For Azariah, Indian Christians were fundamentally Indians. He saw them as devoted in love to the Indian nation and responsible to serve the country.

Azariah’s legacy for the Tamil church and for the Tamil people is notable. He promoted Tamil language and literature, published hymns and religious texts in Tamil, and even financially supported many Tamil poets.

What we can learn from Azariah is his deep desire for unity—within the church and as Indians.

K. T. Paul: Healthy Patriotic Love

A Servant to the Nation

Kanakarayan Tiruselvam Paul was born in 1876 to a Tamil Christian family in Salem, Tamil Nadu. He was a prominent Indian leader and social reformer. He was a co-founder of the Indian Missionary Society, a champion of Indian independence, and the president of the All-India Christian Conference.

Paul put his words to action. He initiated healthcare services across vulnerable populations in rural India through mobile healthcare and medical camps. He helped launch a cooperative bank to support rural economic growth. In addition, he supported educational initiatives, established schools, and provided scholarships.

A Truly Indian Christianity

Most significantly, Paul desired to galvanise the Christian community in India to take pride in India. He wanted them to create a truly Indian form of Christianity.

What we learn from Paul’s vision is simply this: we cannot remain aloof and disengaged.

In one of his more important essays, he wrote: “We will do well to realise that there is a terrible danger if we persist in the policy of keeping aloof.

Materially, socially, morally and politically, viewed in fact from every standpoint, our interests are intimately bound up with those of other Indian communities. Will it be ever otherwise?

Long after Britain’s political mission to India is finished, let us hope five centuries later, for all things earthly must change—we shall still be Indian.”

In his words, we find an eschatological vision for Indian Christian identity. In the new heavens and the new earth, the “Indian-ness” of the followers of Jesus is fundamental to their identity in new creation. God loves India and loves Indians. The destiny of Indian Christians in bound up together with the broader society in which they exist.

What we learn from Paul’s vision is simply this: we cannot remain aloof and disengaged.

P. D. Devanandan: The Beauty of Humility

Humble, Thoughtful Contextualisation

Paul David Devanandan was born in 1901 in Madras. In History of Christianity in India, historian A. Jaykumar describes Devanandan as a prominent Indian Protestant theologian and “pioneer in interreligious dialogue.

Along with Azariah and Paul, Devanandan played an important role in the Indian YMCA, especially from 1949 to 1956. During that time, he served as Delhi Secretary and subsequently national literature secretary.

One of his most significant works is a speech delivered at the 1938 International Missionary Council in Madras, titled “Called to Witness.”

Devanandan emphasised the need for Indians to express a truly Indian Christianity. He saw Indian identity and cultural engagement as deeply interlinked with Christian theology. He called his Indian listeners to understand the Christian message through a fully Indian lens.

What we learn from Devanandan is how to humbly engage with culture as thoughtful learners and humble critics.

In this provocative and beautiful speech, Devanandan, with powerful and lucid evangelical theology, calls his Christian brothers and sisters to contextualise the gospel with love and empathy.

He says, “We are all involved in a common social crisis, tied together by a community of interests; our common humanity serves as a common denomination. . . .This calls for a sympathetic understanding of every religion’s present claims as dynamic faiths expressed in the lives of people.

Of course, this did not mean backing down from one’s convictions. Rather, he challenged Christians to re-orient and reframe how they engaged with culture and other religions. He fundamentally believed that “communication about God should always lead others to communication with God.”

Humbly Seeking Wholeness

Moreover, Devanandan also cared about the church’s mission in post-colonial India. He wrestled with how Jesus-followers in India could serve the country after independence. He believed that one of the great purposes of the church was to bring wholeness to every domain of human existence.

In the words of one scholar, “Devanandan believed that Christian concern in society was not merely political or economic but primarily theological, rooted in and governed by the insight that ‘our faith stands for the redemption of the whole man’ here and now.”

As followers of Jesus, we would do well to follow Devanandan’s theological humility, graciousness, and passion for social renewal. He held fast to his convictions, which were broadly Protestant and evangelical. But he also demonstrated hospitality to other worldviews and religions, though he was critical where he needed to be critical.

Devanandan approached cultural engagement as a learner. He desired, first and foremost, to genuinely learn from others.

What we learn from Devanandan is how to humbly engage with culture as thoughtful learners and humble critics.

Engaging with Indian Culture

The scholar Chandra Malampalli puts it well when he says, “Indian Christians in the early twentieth century ‘neither reverted to the divisive polemics of the early nineteenth century nor called for a recovery of syncretism.’” In other words, they walked a fine line—neither withdrawing completely, nor compromising uncritically.

From these stalwart Tamil Christians we can learn unity, healthy patriotic love, and humility. What would it look like for us to embody these characteristics in relation to the wonderful country of India today?