Monday, April 26, 2010

St Thomas's Town

Did you know that we have a tomb of one of Jesus Christ's disciples right here in India? St. Thomas is said to have lived and died in Chennai around 72 AD. The apostle is also called Doubting Thomas for it is said he refused to believe Jesus had been resurrected until he could put his finger through the risen Christ's crucifixion wounds. I visited some of the places associated with the apostle in Chennai recently. One thing that struck me was how in death, as in life, St. Thomas' name is associated with doubts...

A severely edited version of an article I wrote on Thomas in Chennai appeared in Deccan Chronicle. Not only did they edit the piece badly (IMO), they also forgot to give credit to the photographer Arul Jegadish. All in all, a bit of a mess :(

Here's more on the apostle’s Chennai connection:

Our exploration began where St Thomas died, at St. Thomas Mount. The peripatetic Italian, Marco Polo, who visited Chennai in the 1290s, says that Church brethren told him how the saint had been killed when a hunter aiming at some peacocks accidentally hit the apostle. Another Italian traveller, Bishop John de Marignolli, who came by about a hundred years after Polo,
corroborates this and adds that St. Thomas continued “throughout the night to preach, whilst his blessed blood was welling from his side; and in the morning he gave up his soul to God.”

Incidentally, the story more commonly given today is that St. Thomas was killed by a Brahmin, because the Brahmins were agitated by how popular the apostle was becoming...

At the summit is the Church of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin, a simple church that is devoid of ostentation but rich in myth and legend. It was first built by Armenians and rebuilt by the Portuguese in 1521 and again in 1547. The Armenian influence is evident in the 14 beautiful paintings (dating to the 1700s) of Jesus and the apostles that line the walls. You can also see many Armenian inscriptions in and around the church.

The altar here is believed to mark the spot where St Thomas fell. The cross embedded in the wall behind the altar has an interesting story. It was unearthed by the Portuguese during excavations here. The large granite slab bears a cross and an inscription on top, and once had red stains on it. This is the famous bleeding cross which has been reported to sweat blood several times between 1556 and 1704. Tradition has it that it was fashioned by St Thomas himself and that he died holding it.

But controversy and doubts seem essential ingredients of all stories associated Doubting Thomas. The strange lettering incised on the cross definitely added to its aura of mystery. Although it was first assumed to relate to St Thomas, in the late 1800s, historians realised the inscription was actually in Pahlavi and, somewhat anti-climactically, had nothing to do with St Thomas, but recorded only the name of the person who fashioned the cross. Paleographically, the inscription and hence the cross were dated to about 650 AD, making it the oldest among only about half a dozen such Nestorian crosses in India.

Next to the bleeding cross is a beautiful oil painting on wood of the Madonna with baby Jesus, which according to legend was brought to India by the apostle himself and was painted by Luke the evangelist. Most historians scoff at this claim but I was thrilled to see a painting which could well be over 1,950 years old… sometimes, myths left unexamined through the rationalist’s lens are so much more satisfying!

Our next stop was to the stately Santhome Cathedral Basilica, near Marina beach, built over the spot where St. Thomas was buried. Thomas is believed to have built a chapel near the seashore where he prayed and preached, and on his death, was buried there. The church’s fortunes seem to have waxed and waned through the centuries for although a magnificent church stood here in the 1200s, by the 1500s, it was languishing. The Portuguese rebuilt it in the 1600s. In 1893, this building was demolished and the church in its present form came up and was consecrated in 1896.

Today’s cathedral is a grand Gothic edifice, complete with nave and transept, soaring towers and spires. Light streams in through exquisite stained glass windows in the clerestory. One set of three large stained glass windows depicting the episode where Jesus appears to Doubting Thomas, was made in Germany in the 1870s. Recent renovation work removed the paint covering the vaulted ceiling to reveal the beautiful, warm, brown tones of the original teak ceiling.

Signs of antiquity are everywhere. Lining the walls on either side of the walls is a row of ornate hand-carved chairs. In the transept on the right is a statue of Mary, brought here from Portugal in 1543. Called Our Lady of Mylapore, this 3-foot statue is said to be the one St. Francis Xavier used to pray to when he visited Mylapore in the 1500s.

At the very heart of the church, in the basement, is the apostle’s crypt and a tomb chapel. I learned that the soil around the grave has always been renowned for its miraculous powers. Bishop Marignolli, Marco Polo and other European travellers speak of several miracles wrought by the sacred soil. The church even sells small parcels of sand from the grave embedded in a small card which devotees can conveniently carry.

But the crypt itself is empty. According to some texts, the saint’s relics were transferred to Edessa in Syria sometime in the 4th century and from there to Ortona in Italy in the 1200s. But here again, doubts persist: Were his remains completely removed to Edessa? Or were some relics left behind?

If they were removed, why, in the late 800s, did the English king Alfred the Great send alms “to India to St. Thomas”? Several other European travellers over the next few centuries, including the redoubtable Marco Polo, describe “the place containing the body of the apostle St. Thomas”.

In the early 1500s, after strenuous efforts, the Portuguese claimed to have located the tomb and relics of St. Thomas in Chennai. They had planned to transfer the relics they found to Goa but eventually stored them in Cochin before sending them back to Santhome. Yet, when the tomb was opened in 1887, all it contained were a piece of a lance that killed the apostle and a fragment of his bone.

But the church does have some relics of St. Thomas. In 1952, the then Pope gifted a portion of Thomas’s finger from the relics at Ortona to commemorate 1900 years since the arrival of St. Thomas in India. You can see portions of this relic in the tomb chapel and in the church museum. I felt a shiver run through me as I gazed at the fragment of bone from the very hand that is believed to have touched the risen Christ. And I recalled how Doubting Thomas’ had said, “Unless I put my finger in the nail marks in his hands and place my hand in his side, I will not believe." And Jesus had let Thomas do so and had said, “Blessed are they that have not seen and have believed.


usha said...

what a well written piece, meera! truly beautiful...

Meera said...

Mr Sharan,

Thanks you for your comment.

You seem to have missed my point that doubt shrouds a lot of things concerning Doubting Thomas. That apart, a lot of your comment is actually not relevant to my article at all. And I really don't see what my being a Brahmin has to do with what I write on St Thomas or on anything else for that matter. I think the whole story of St Thomas - myth or reality - is a fascinating part of India's culture.