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The Mylapore St. Thomas myth that doesn’t seem to die: Part 2

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The Mylapore St. Thomas myth that doesn’t seem to die: Part 2
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Read Part 1 here.

What stood on the place the church presently stands?   

And so, it was pretty clear to me that the St. Thomas coming to India story is a myth. But that doesn’t answer the question of what originally stood on the site of the St. Thomas church.

The early Portuguese encounters with India have been exceptionally bloody. In their quest of ridding the pagan land of false faith and in their mission of spreading the good news, the Portuguese went about destroying Hindu temples and other places of worship on a large scale. The Portuguese were more zealous in this religious quest than the British.  After tracing the St. Thomas legend to South India the Portuguese sought to ‘cement’ this firmly by replacing the Shiva temple on the Mylapore beach with a church in the memory of the fictional St. Thomas.

As to the evidence of a Shiva temple standing on the site of the St. Thomas church, we can turn to Ishwar Sharan’s book again.

Iyadigal Kadavarkon, the sixth century Shaivite prince of Kanchipuram, Jnanasambandar and Arunagirinathar, the sixth and fifteenth century Shaivite poets, consistently mention in their hymns that the Kapaleeswara Temple was on the seashore.

Jnanasambandar writes, “The Lord of Kapaleeswaram sat watching the people of Mylapore — a place full of flowering coconut palms — taking ceremonial bath in the sea on the full moon day of the month of Masai.” 

Nine centuries later, and one century before the arrival of the Portuguese, Arunagirinathar writes, “O Lord of Mylapore temple, situated on the shores of the sea with raging waves….”

So what happened during the invasion of the Portuguese? What happened to this temple of Lord Kapaleeshwara located on the ‘shores of the sea with raging waves’? Ishwar Sharan quotes N. Murugesha Mudaliar and PK Nambiar.

–          N. Murugesa Mudaliar, in Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar Temple Mylapore,writes, “Mylapore fell into the hands of the Portuguese in 1566, when the temple suffered demolition. The present temple was rebuilt around three hundred years ago. There are some fragmentary inscriptions from the old temple still found in the St. Thomas Cathedral.”

–          P.K. Nambiar, in Census of India 1961, Vol. IX, Part XI, writes “It is a historical fact that the Portuguese, who visited India in the 16th century, had one of their earliest settlements at San Thome, Mylapore. In those days they were very cruel and had iconoclastic tendencies. They razed some Hindu temples to the ground. It is probable that the Mylapore temple referred to in the Thevaram hymns was built on the seashore and that it was destroyed by the Portuguese about the beginning of the 16th century.”

Like in most other places where their religious places have been destroyed and desecrated, the Hindus relentlessly made efforts to reclaim and rebuild the temple. Ishwar Sharan quotes M. Arunachalam and says, “Later, devout Hindus built the present temple of Mylapore at a different site, a few furlongs west, out of whatever they could salvage from the ruins of the old temple. A number of carved temple stones can still be seen on the compound wall of the church.” 

And this ‘replacing the temple with the church’ did not happen without bloodshed. In the foreword to the book, celebrated scholar on Hinduism, Dr. Koenraad Elst writes “… the church which they(Christians) claim commemorates St.Thomas’s martyrdom at the hands of Hindu fanaticism, is in fact a monument of Hindu martyrdom at the hands of Christian fanaticism. It is a forcible replacement of two important Hindu temples — Jain and Shaiva — whose existence was insupportable to the Christian missionaries”. 

And as to how many Hindus were slaughtered, Dr. Elst says,

“No one knows how many Hindu priests and worshipers were killed when the Christian soldiers came to remove the curse of Paganism from the Mylapore beach. Hinduism does not practice martyr-mongering, but if at all we have to speak of martyrs in this context, the title goes to these Jina- and Shiva-worshipers and not to the apostle Thomas.”

While the nun had told me that St. Thomas was murdered by wicked Brahmins who could not digest his popularity, history was telling me the exact opposite story – of a temple demolition and slaughter of Hindus by the invading Portuguese Christians. This was what the Hindus got in return for giving shelter and refuge to the persecuted Syrian Christians—they had, apart from being labelled as the ‘murderers’ of the holy saint, their temples destroyed and their people butchered.

Yet, this historical fact has been carefully kept in the dark. From my experience of travelling around the country, I say with confidence that there are several such instances where Hindu temples have given way for churches. The Archaeological Survey of India has not investigated the origins of early Christian churches in India in the same way that it has studied old mosques and other Muslim monuments. However, this work has been done by German scholars and awaits translation and publication in English. Most sixteenth and seventeenth century churches in India contain temple rubble and are built on temple sites and a deeper investigation in this direction needs to take place.

And then we have the third question of the story of the Brahmin killing St. Thomas.

Ishwar Sharan explains again.

“The Portuguese were familiar with the St. Thomas legend long before they arrived in India. They knew Marco Polo’s Il Milione, made popular in Europe in the fourteenth century, and the earlier sixth century Latin romances De Miraculis Thomae and Passio Thomae…The Passio Thomae had St. Thomas killed by a Pagan priest with a sword, and De Miraculis Thomae had him killed by a Pagan priest with a lance. These stories were at odds with the one found in the Acts of Thomas, which had the apostle executed on the orders of a Persian king, by four royal soldiers with spears.”

The stories were completely at variance with each other. But that won’t be an issue when you can yourself invent a new version! That is what the Portuguese precisely did.

The Portuguese preferred the Pagan-priest-with-a-lance story found in De Miraculis Thomae. They added Marco Polo’s seaside tomb to it, and elements from Syrian Christian traditions that they had gathered in Malabar, and concocted a legend…”

 And so here we have how the Pagan-priest–with-a-lance became a wicked-Brahmin-priest-with-a-spear.  This was how a St. Thomas who never came to India became a martyr and the local Brahmin priest became the wicked murderer. This again was the classic instance of the nefarious design of the Christian missionaries to not only convert large masses of Hindus to Christianity, but to also paint the Brahmins as wicked oppressors because they stood as an obstacle in their conversion pursuit.

As Dr. Koenraad Elst says,

“The well-spring of anti-Brahminism is doubtlessly the Christian missionaries’ greedy design to rope in the souls of Hindus. From there onwards, it spread through the entire English-educated class and ultimately became an unquestionable dogma in India’s political parlance. Communist historians and sociologists have been fortifying it by rewriting Indian history as a perennial struggle between Brahmin oppressors and the rest. When defending the Mandal report in 1990, the then Prime Minister of India V.P. Singh could say that Brahmins have to do penance for the centuries of oppression which they inflicted on the Backwards, without anyone questioning his historical assumptions. Anti-Brahminism is now part of the official doctrine of the secular, socialist Republic of India.”

The St. Thomas-in-India story, I realized, was only one example of the state of public discourse in India, which is completely divorced from truth and honesty, which have been sacrificed at the altar of a spurious brand of secularism.

When I told a few friends of my research into this issue and the shocking revelation that followed, they asked me a few very pertinent questions. “What difference does it make whether Christianity came to India in the first or the fourth century?” “Why raise such a squabble when no one denies that the Syrian Christians of Malabar are old immigrants to this country?” “What difference does it make if St. Thomas was killed or not?” “What difference does it make whether a Brahmin killed St. Thomas or not?” I found satisfactory answers in Sita Ram Goel’s Papacy: Its Doctrine and History.

Firstly, it is one thing for some Christian refugees to come to a country and build some churches, and quite another for an apostle of Jesus Christ to appear in flesh and blood for spreading the Good News. If it can be established that Christianity is as ancient in India as the prevailing forms of Hinduism, no one can nail it down as an imported creed brought in by Western imperialism.

Secondly, the Catholic Church in India stands badly in need of a spectacular martyr of its own. Unfortunately for it, St. Francis Xavier died a natural death and that, too, in a distant place. Hindus, too, have persistently refused to oblige the Church in this respect, in spite of all provocations. The Church has to use its own resources and churn out something. St. Thomas, about whom nobody knows anything, offers a ready-made martyr.

Thirdly, the Catholic Church can malign the Brahmins more confidently. Brahmins have been the main target of its attack from the beginning. Now it can be shown that the Brahmins have always been a vicious brood, so much so that they would not stop from murdering a holy man who was only telling God’s own truth to a tormented people. At the same time, the religion of the Brahmins can be held responsible for their depravity.

Fourthly, the Catholics in India need no more feel uncomfortable when faced with historical  evidence about their Church’s close cooperation with the Portuguese pirates, in committing abominable crimes against the Indian people. The commencement of the Church can be disentangled from the advent of the Portuguese by dating the Church to some distant past. The Church was here long before the Portuguese arrived. It was a mere coincidence that the Portuguese also called themselves Catholics. Guilt by association is groundless.

Lastly, it is quite within the ken of Catholic theology to claim that a land which has been honoured by the visit of an apostle has become a patrimony of the Catholic Church. India might have been a Hindu homeland from times immemorial, but since that auspicious moment when St. Thomas stepped on her soil, the Hindu claim stands cancelled. The country has belonged to the Catholic Church from the first century onwards, no matter how long the Church takes to conquer it completely for Christ.

It is mainly for these reasons that we need to stir up debate on this issue. Sadly, even the biggest of political leaders in India have unquestioningly accepted and promptly parroted this historical fable. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in one of his travel books,

Few people realise that Christianity came to India as early as the first century after Christ, long before Europe turned to it, and established a firm hold in South India…

Dr. Rajendra Prasad’s St. Thomas Day speech at New Delhi, in 1955, where he parroted Nehru, was equally ignorant:

Remember St. Thomas came to India when many countries in Europe had not yet become Christian and so these Indians who trace their Christianity to him have a longer history and a higher ancestry than that of Christians of many of the European countries. And it is a matter of pride for us that it happened.…

Ishwar Sharan’s path breaking book was published for the first time in 1995 and ever since, the diocese has resorted to the old trick of suppresio veri and suggestio falsi.

Even after Pope Benedict XVI himself clarified that St. Thomas never came to India and despite several publications debunking the historical veracity of the St. Thomas legend, the Mylapore diocese, the secular intelligentsia and the mainstream media are peddling the same falsehood brazenly.

The Mylapore diocese in 2008, also planned the production of a mega budget movie on the life and times of St. Thomas, his visit to India and St. Thomas’s purported conversation with Tamil Saint Thiruvalluvar and Thiruvalluvar’s alleged conversion to Christianity!

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The saddest part is that such fabrications continue to be peddled audaciously. Indeed, the dissemination of superstitions about St. Thomas and early Christianity in India is almost all-pervasive: from tourist guide books, official gazettes, school textbooks and, needless, Christian publications and websites. As a consequence, every boy and girl in the country believes that a Mylapore king and his Brahmin priest murdered St. Thomas on Big Mount. They cannot help but believe it because that is what they are taught “on good authority” either by the teachers in their schools or by the newspapers.

As I was about to leave the precincts of the church, a new batch of tourists entered in a large bus. They headed to the museum where the nun devoutly took the tourists around the church narrating the St. Thomas fable. It then struck to me that it’s precisely what we must do – exploit the power, reach and influence of tourism to challenge the distortions in our public discourse.

This is the kind of discovery of India that young people of our country must be exposed to, and not the Nehruvian kind.

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Tejasvi Surya

An alumnus of IndiaFacts, Tejasvi Surya is an Advocate practicing at the High Court of Karnataka, at Bangalore. He is also the co-founder of Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence, an organization running projects in the spheres of education, employment and entrepreneurship. Tejasvi is currently the State Secretary for Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, Karnataka.