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The Mylapore St. Thomas Myth that just doesn’t seem to die: Part 1

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Some myths die soon. Some take quite a long time to die. And there are some others which are kept alive by a few people whose very survival depends on the survival of those myths. One such myth that has been kept alive despite having been debunked time and again is the myth of St. Thomas Church of Mylapore in Chennai. My latest visit to this church opened my eyes to the disgraceful attempt by the Santhome church authorities to perpetuate a bundle of historical untruths. Let me narrate the experience in full.

The St. Thomas church of Mylapore is an imposing structure standing on the shore of the Mylapore beach and being one of the most famous churches in Chennai is a major tourist attraction. After going inside the cathedral and reading brief introductions about the apostles of Christ and their various exploits displayed on plaques placed in the cathedral, I went to the museum in the next building. Among the various relics and artifacts on display were also a few stones and pillars, which the museum told us, once comprised the very first church built by St. Thomas himself.  At the very first sight, these pillars triggered a few questions and some suspicions in my mind; the carvings on the pillars looked very similar to traditional Hindu temple carvings which are very unlikely to be seen in a church. The more I looked at the many stones and pillars displayed in the museum, the more suspicious I grew about the church and the story behind it.

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The tomb of St Thomas is in the ground floor of this museum. When I went there I met a nun who was sitting in a corner reading the Bible. I thought that the best way to learn more about this church and St. Thomas would be to ask the nun. She was more than happy to explain to us the legend of St Thomas. Here is what she told me: St. Thomas was one of the direct disciples of Jesus Christ and he came to India in 52 CE to spread the ‘good news’. He was the first saint who brought Christianity to India. He first came to the shores of Kerala and from there travelled across South India before coming to Mylapore. Here, by his miraculous powers he healed hundreds of wounded, gave sight to the blind and cured many stricken with incurable diseases. These miracles not only got him a large following among the masses but also earned him royal patronage.

By this time, I already had many questions pounding in my head, especially about the year she had mentioned – 52 CE. Had Christians come to India as early as 52 CE? Weren’t the Syrian immigrants the first Christians to come to India and didn’t they come much later? Even if it was St. Thomas who arrived first, how did he manage to travel to India, crossing the seas, that early in time? The nun’s story was starkly different from what I had read in history books. Nevertheless, I didn’t interrupt her at that point and heard her out further: As the miracles St. Thomas performed earned him larger followings each passing day, he also invited a lot of ire from the traditional Hindu people of the region – especially the Brahmins who were apprehensive that their stranglehold over the society might slip away from their hands. Meanwhile thousands of people realized the falsity of the Hindu religion and embraced the true faith thanks to St. Thomas. The king also gave St. Thomas a piece of land near the beach – the place where the church is standing today. St. Thomas built this beautiful church on that land. I interrupted her at that point because I wanted to know what was there in this place before the church was built.  Well, a lot of Brahmins stayed at this place. It was predominantly a Brahmin area. Many of them left this place after the church came up while many others accepted the true faith and continued to live here, the nun answered. She then took me over to the other side of the room and pointing at a tableau, continued, So this tableau depicts how the end of St. Thomas came about. The Brahmins in the state were getting extremely jealous of St. Thomas’s popularity among the masses and realizing that their hegemony was under severe threat, decided to kill St. Thomas- the peace loving apostle of Christ- when he was in deep prayer on the mountain. You can see in this tableau how the wicked Brahmin priest is piercing a spear into St. Thomas when he was lost in prayer. St. Thomas attained martyrdom in 72 CE.

I had to ask another question at this point. The man with the spear in the hand hardly looked like a Brahmin. His depiction was more like that of a local fisherman. More importantly, the said Brahmin was not wearing the sacred thread. When I asked her that the absence of the sacred thread, which all Brahmins wear was very strange, she conveniently told me that there are hundreds of sects among Brahmins and that this particular man in the tableau might have belonged to a sect which did not wear one. Her answer was not very convincing. She then took me to the adjoining room which had the tomb of St. Thomas and explained that the saint’s mortal remains were kept there: St. Thomas continues to remain an inspiration for the faithful. His martyrdom has sanctified this land and even to this day this place draws millions of people from all over the world. His spirit is guiding us in relentlessly carrying forward the task of spreading the ‘good news’. Upon asking if people from other faiths also come here, she told me that a large number of Hindus come and many are convinced of the greatness of the Christian faith and embrace it. I thanked her for taking us around and explaining about the place and took her leave.

My doubts however, did not leave me in peace. I told my friends that there were three things in particular that I wanted to verify:

1. If St. Thomas had really come to India, what was the year he first set foot here?

2.  What stood on the place the church presently stands? The traditional Hindu carvings on the pillars – alleged to have been used in the original church built by St. Thomas– suggest that a temple might have existed on the spot.

3. If St. Thomas was indeed in India, how did his end come about? Was he murdered when he was in prayer?  More importantly, was he murdered by a Brahmin?

Although it’s not very hard to locate any information you want in this age, very often even the so-called trusted sources can be adulterated to suit political ends. Here’s what Wikipedia says on the subject:

According to tradition, the Apostle reached MuzirisIndia in 52 CE and baptized several people who are today known as Saint Thomas Christians or Nasranis… After his murder and death by spear in India, the remaining relics of Saint Thomas the Apostle were enshrined as far as Mesopotamia in the 3rd century, and later moved to various places. In 1258 some of the reputed relics were brought to Abruzzo, in OrtonaItaly, where they have been held in the Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle.”

This just confused me even more. I just had come back from Mylapore after visiting what I was told is St. Thomas’s tomb and Wikipedia says that his relics are in Ortona in Italy! And so I dug deeper and found Ishwar Sharan’s ‘The myth of St. Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple’ where a series of articles conclusively and comprehensively answered these questions with sound historical evidence.

So, did St. Thomas really come to India? If he indeed did, when and what historical or other evidence exists to prove this?

The St. Thomas-in-India story is not a new one; it has been making the rounds right from the fourth century. Ishwar Sharan elucidates this in the introduction to his book.

The legend of St. Thomas in India has its origin in the third century Gnostic religious text known as the Acts of Thomas. Judas Thomas called Didymus, identified in the Acts as the look-alike twin brother of Jesus, had travelled in Syria and Persia and had established a church in Fars (somewhere in erstwhile Persia). Judas Thomas was known as the Apostle of the East in all of West Asia and India up to the 1950s. His cult was brought to India by Syrian Christian refugees from Edessa and Babylon in the fourth century. Between the fourth and the sixteenth centuries, the Syrian Christians reinvented the tale many times over until at last they had St. Thomas coming to India himself to evangelize the heathen. St. Thomas then becomes the founder of Christianity in India and their very own “Indian” apostle.

This story was faithfully carried forward even by Marco Polo and from him by the Portuguese who captured and controlled the Coromandel Coast for quite a long time.

“The legend was later embellished by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century, who made the extraordinary claim that the apostle’s tomb was on the Coromandal Coast, and then it was taken over by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, who following Marco Polo decided, Mylapore with its great temple to Shiva was the place where St. Thomas was buried. They added their own redactions of the Acts of Thomas to the legend, their favourite being St. Gregory’s De Miraculis (Beati) Thomae, and in 1523 having established themselves in the thriving Mylapore sea port, began destroying temples and building their St. Thomas church on the ruins, pretending the sites were those of St. Thomas’s martyrdom and burial.”

There are a number of historical and even Christian religious texts which themselves question the veracity of the legend of St. Thomas.

–          A.D. Burnell, in an article in the Indian Antiquary of May 1875, writes, “The attribution of the origin of South Indian Christianity to the apostle Thomas seems very attractive to those who hold certain theological opinion. But the real question is, on what evidence does it rest? Without real or sufficient evidence so improbable a circumstance is to be at once rejected. Pious fictions have no place in historical research.”

 –          Prof. Jarl Charpentier, in St. Thomas the Apostle and India, writes, “There is absolutely not the shadow of a proof that an Apostle of our Lord — be his name Thomas or something else — ever visited South India or Ceylon and founded Christian communities there.”

–           Rev. J. Hough, in Christianity in India, writes, “It is not probable that any of the Apostles of our Lord embarked on a voyage … to India.”

In other words, the story of St. Thomas coming to India is primarily based on a hagiography called the Acts of Thomas – in which we find no indication of Thomas ever landing in India – and which, being a hagiography, has no historical authenticity. The story was then reinvented many times over by the Syrian Christians who sought refuge in India, and was later picked up and reported by Marco Polo in his encounters with some of these Syrian Christians. From here, the story was lapped up by the Portuguese who then ‘established’ the link between this legendary St. Thomas and India by building the church on the Mylapore beach.

Yet, to this day this myth lives on. Attempts are being made to unabashedly perpetuate the propagation of this falsehood. Tomes of literature are written by theologians who pass off as historians and other ‘eminences’ who invariably have some ideological or political agenda. Starting from the Protestant missionary Claudius Buchanan to the Roman Catholic historian Fr. A Mundanan and the ‘historical fiction’ writer of our own time, William Dalrymple, all have parroted the same fabrication that originated with the Syrian Christians and have tried to legitimize it as the ‘truth’.

So what stood on the spot the church presently stands, and what explains the carvings on the stone pillars in the museum?

….Continued in Part 2

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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.