Christians in India's northeast are outraged after a picture showing Jesus Christ holding a beer can and a cigarette was discovered in primary school textbooks.

The image appeared in a handwriting book for children in church-run schools in the Christian-majority state of Meghalaya, where it was used to illustrate the letter "I" for the word "Idol".

"We are deeply shocked and hurt at the objectionable portrayal of Jesus Christ in the school book. We condemn the total lack of respect for religions by the publisher," Shillong diocese Archbishop Dominic Jala told AFP.

Police said they were hunting for the owner of the New Delhi-based publisher, Skyline Publications, who faces charges of offending religious sentiment, local police superintendent A.R. Mawthoh told AFP.

The Roman Catholic Church in India has banned all textbooks by Skyline, while Protestant leaders called for a public apology.

The state government also denounced the publication.

"We strongly condemn such a blasphemous act. Legal action has been initiated against the publisher," M. Ampareen Lyngdoh, an education minister in the Meghalaya government, said.

English-language daily The Shillong Times said Skyline had apologized for "hurting people's religious sentiments," but had offered no explanation as to how the error occurred.

Efforts are underway to recall all copies of the book, the publisher was quoted as saying.

AFP was unable to reach Skyline for comment.

Christians account for 2.3 per cent of India's billion-plus Hindu-majority population. The main concentrations are in the northeast, the eastern state of Orissa and in the southern states of Kerala and Goa.

In 2008, anti-Christian riots in Orissa left more than 100 people dead, according to Christian groups, after missionaries were accused of killing a Hindu holy man.