St. Thomas in Madras

As I mentioned in my post on the Syrian Christians of Kerala, the apochryphal Acts of Judas Thomas and local tradition here in South India say that St. (Doubting) Thomas, one of Jesus’s disciples, came to India to preach after Jesus’s death. After founding a community of Christians along the now Keralan coast (a community which still exists today), he is by legend said to have come to the town of Mylapore, now southern Madras, where he was persecuted and killed.

We started with the first of the sites, referred to as the “Little Mount.” Located near the wretchedly poor dhobi ghat dwellers along the Adyar River in southwestern central Madras, the very gradual and low hill called the Little Mount is a legendary site of St. Thomas’s persecution. Under a small Portuguese church, founded in 1551, lies a cave where it is said that St. Thomas fled from his persecutors and prayed.

A few kilometers to the west of the Little Mount is the “Great Mount,” or “St. Thomas’s Mount.” A significant bigger hill, not far from Madras’s airport, the Great Mount is the legendary site of St. Thomas’s martyrdom. It is said that the altar of the Portuguese church (Our Lady of Expectations, dating from 1547) lies above the site of St. Thomas’s death, and an ancient rock cross of miraculous legends located in the church is said to have been carved by St. Thomas himself. A painting to the right of the altar, of Mary, is (implausibly) said to have been painted by another of the apostles and brought to India by St. Thomas.

Finally, to the east along the coast in the upscale neighborhood of Mylapore lies the great San Thome Basilica. Rebuilt in 1896, the impressive basilica lies on top of the legendary site of St. Thomas’s burial. A newly built, air-conditioned passageway takes you to a small chapel, where you can see the gravesite as well as some relics (most of the remains, we were told, were removed to Italy in the 13th century).

Local women praying before an effigy of St. Thomas located in the main church, directly above the tomb itself.

Our Lady of Mylapore, a very old carving of Mary before which no less than St. Francis Xavier prayed, when he was in now Madras.

The tomb itself. The area the worshipper is touching is exposed dirt (under glass).

So is all this for real? That is, did St. Thomas make it all the way to India, found a community of Christians in now Kerala and die in now Madras? I am inclined to believe the stories, if only because in many ways they seem to have been held, relatively consistently, for hundreds and hundreds of years. Multiple sources, some of them ancient, believed that St. Thomas came to India, and existing trade routes (in the Pondicherry museum are a great number of remains from an ancient trading port that received merchandise from Rome) made such a visit easy to conceive. The world was quite connected in ancient classical times.

But what matters in the end is not what actually happened, but what worshippers believe. As acknowledged by a visit from Pope John Paul II, these sites are venerated by millions of Christians, including especially those located in India, and, as far as religion goes, faith is the most important thing.

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