By Arun Ganpathy
The author visits Chennai to delve into the life of St Thomas, an apostle of Christ
|The bleeding cross and altar|
The figure on the large white board at the entrance looks like a javelin thrower, assessing the distance of his run-up. He is dressed in red toga-like robes, carries a staff in one hand, and a Bible in the other. Only the words written below his feet reveal who he is.
“This is the spot of the heroic martyrdom of St Thomas, the apostle of Jesus Christ, come and have an energising spiritual experience.”
I am at the foot of St Thomas Mount in Chennai and at the start of a centuries old tradition of the life and martyrdom of St Thomas.
St Thomas or Thomas of Didymus was an unnoticed apostle in the litany of the saints about whose early life and parentage little is known. In the gospel of St John, when Jesus lets his disciples know that he is soon to leave them, St Thomas shakes off his timidity for the first time.
‘Lord we do not know where thou art going, how art we to know the way there?’, he asks Jesus.
Generations of Christians would be indebted to Thomas for asking the question for Jesus’ classic reply revealed the way into the eternal life. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” says Jesus, “and nobody can come to the father except through me.”
From this point on, St. Thomas appears more actively.
When Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, Thomas was not there with them. He refused to believe or accept what the others had seen, resulting in him being nicknamed doubting Thomas.
The story goes that eight days later, Jesus himself took up Thomas’ conditional obstinacy.
“Let me have thy finger,” he said to doubting Thomas, “put it to my side, cease that doubting and believe.” And that was the end of the doubting in Thomas, who fell to his knees and said “thou art my lord and my God”.
Jesus ascended to heaven commissioning his apostles to preach the good news of the gospel throughout the world.
The apostles met in Jerusalem and divided the countries among them in order that each one might preach in the region that fell to him.
St Peter went to Rome and St James to Spain.
St Thomas came eastwards – to India.
In about 52 AD he landed on the Kerala coast in a place called Cranganore.
Right from the time he arrived, the saint was a busy bee, carrying out Christ’s injunctions with fervour.
Just above Cranganore was the village of Palayur with its long settled community of Jews and a Hindu population made up chiefly of high Namboodri priests whom St Thomas successfully converted to Christianity.
He then started for the country of the Tamils, eventually crossing the Coromandel Coast and reaching the coastal township of Meliapor.
On the way he is supposed to have worked miracles – recorded in the narratives like a listing in an ad of a state government’s health welfare achievements. Raised to life 29
dead Cured 330 lepers
Speech to 20 dumb
At the time he arrived, Meliapor (current day Mylapore) was a small coastal village with wind-swept beaches. Here the saint continued to preach and convert and built a small chapel ‘with his own hands.’
He preached with fervour; Christianity was still a new religion and like anything new it attracted.
Thousands flocked to hear him – at Mylapore and at the shrine atop the mount at the foot of which I was now standing.
At the entrance was a large archway with a statue of the saint and a sign on the wall that prohibited, couples from using this place and its steps for their merriment.’
I enter and almost instantly I am enveloped in green.
The gently sloping walkway meanders through a thick forest of neem and bulbul trees. As I climb, the only noises are the cawing of a crow, and the chirruping of crickets in the undergrowth. Despite the warning, I am tempted to side with the cooing couples en route for there are few places in Chennai as ideal as this for a cuddle.
But why did St Thomas choose this place? The legends say nothing, but the reason became clear to me as I reached the summit.
On one corner was a large viewing platform, with a commanding view of the city and a small statue of John Paul II to one corner. A plaque below read:
Pope John Paul II stood in this spot and blessed the multitudes on the 5th Feb. 1986.
It is not difficult to figure out the scene 2000 years ago.
Surely here was the ideal vantage point for St Thomas to have drawn the attention he needed and direct his flock – so vital for the young religion he preached, to gain a vital foothold.
Surely also here were the forested surroundings that were ideally suited for the life of penance and prayer the saint is known to have led.
So it was here in the 1st century AD that St Thomas continued to preach, while thousands came to hear him – and some – his murderers – sought to kill him. One day, while the apostle was praying before the cross carved by him on a stone an assassin suborned by the king, crept up and pierced him with a lance from behind. The apostle fell upon the stone cross and embraced it, and his blood is believed to have coloured the stone cross.
Thus like his master, Christ, his martyrdom happened on a hill and on a cross. St Thomas Mount became the saint’s Calvary. Across from where I was standing, was the smart white, Blessed Sacrament chapel at the end of which was a richly decorated altar and just behind it, the famed bleeding cross.
Tradition says that when the Portuguese discovered it, it had spots that looked like bloodstains that reappeared after being scrubbed away.
The Portuguese promptly built the cross into the wall, where it first publicly bled on Dec. 18 1551 during mass, and bled periodically ever since, the last time being in 1704.
I watch devotees place their head on the cross for a brief moment, before turning their attention to the relics – a piece of his hand bone the size of a tooth, preserved in a silver reliquary and a peeling painting of the Madonna on wood by St. Luke and supposedly brought to India by the saint himself.
Did the devotees really believe in the bleeding cross?
John and Raymond, two youngsters said they didn’t know much about the place – “but I heard of the miracles” said John, referring obviously to the cross.
Kawal, an army Jawan, said he came here whenever he got some free time; this was such a nice, beautiful spot.
As I walked back down the hill, Kawal’s answer made most sense to me. From where I was standing there was an uninterrupted view of the runway of the Chennai airport, and one could stand here for hours enjoying the thrill of watching aircraft taking off.
The tradition of St Thomas is alive in quite a few places in Chennai. Between St Thomas Mount and San Thome lies Chinna Malai or little mount, where the saint is supposed to have lived for quite a while. In St Thomas’ day the area was a rocky, forested outcrop; but it is difficult to imagine this as you look outside the car window and see the large chrome and glass buildings with big names like Spic and Allen Solly.
Then we dived off the highway; the road rose gently and ended in a large compound with a church built in 1551.
A ‘watch out – don’t bump my head’ act later I was in a cave about the size of a prison cell. Here St Thomas is believed to have continued his life of prayer and penance coming forth only to preach the gospel to the thousands who flocked to hear him.
At the entrance was a rock with large hand imprints said to have been left by the saint as he knelt in prayer and opposite it, an opening, now barred, high up in the wall “window through which the saint escaped his persecutors”.
Next to the opening was a palm- print, like a mould, where St. Thomas touched the wall.
My guide took me round the church, and to another outsized impression on a rock; “footprint” he said pointing to the large smudge and then opening a small room at the back, continued his story.
“ This is a spring,” he said pointing to a fissure in the rock, “and the water in it never goes dry, even in April and May. The water is miraculous. Drink some.” I hesitated fearing the water might be filthy, but it is hot outside, making you feel thirsty. I drink ; the water is cool and quenches my thirst instantly. Lines I had read come back to me.
“ Little mount then, as now was an arid place and the crowd suffered much from thirst. The saint knelt down in prayer and struck the rock with his stick and there formed an instant spring to quench the thirst of the people – the water is continually being taken to this day and cures are attested.”
By now I had had an overdose of miracles, so I questioned the priest outside about the spring.
“What do you mean by miraculous?” I asked. “Yes, you will get cured of all bodily ailments.” “Do you believe in it?” ‘Yes. But you must have faith. Faith,” he said, repeating the word to make it sound convincing. “Only then will you be cured.”
There are only three churches in the world built over the tomb of an apostle of Christ: Santiago De compostella in Spain, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St Thomas Basilica in San Thome where St Thomas, was buried after his martyrdom.
The “Thoman tradition” has it that a few years after his burial the tomb was opened and a pat of blood-stained earth and bloodied lance were found. Early in the 16th century, the Portuguese came along and pulled down the old Nestorian shrine at the site, moved the remains of St. Thomas from the shore to its current resting place, and built a new church over it.
‘The magnificent neogothic cathedral with its awe-inspiring spire reaching to the skies’, appears almost suddenly amidst the jumble of apartment blocks and offices en route to the beach.
Inside the church, it is just as beautiful as it is outside. The stained glass behind the main altar showing doubting Thomas verifying that his master had truly risen is beautiful and looks as though it has been commissioned yesterday. It is late afternoon and the strong sunlight filtering through stained glass turns the church into one giant kaleidoscope. Then you look up and see the wood panelled ceiling, patinaed like the pews below, despite all the years.
Behind the altar is a building whose steps lead down to a new purpose-built crypt. The hum of the air conditioning inside, the diffused lighting, and the antiseptic air inside makes the place feel like a super speciality hospital ward.
This effect is complete when you look at the figure of the saint in repose in a glass case, covered – chest down – in a fleece blanket; lying as though he were on a stretcher.
Pilgrims kneel at the spot and pray in silence. A group enters, makes a noise and leaves quickly and I follow them.
My next pitstop is outside the church, at St Thomas’ pole. This pole is supposed to have been erected by the saint as a mark to prevent the sea from encroaching the land, thus saving the people living near the shore.
The top of the pole is missing and looking at its weather-beaten appearance it is difficult to believe it has survived 2000 years of salt , sun and rain. A plaque at its base reads:
In gratitude to God for saving San Thome from tsunami in 2004.
What is not difficult to believe however, is that the pole and the area behind the church were untouched when tidal waves struck the coastline at this place. And thousands of poor people who lived in the huts on the shore behind the cathedral did not die.
Maybe, just maybe, this really was a miracle of St Thomas.
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