Chapter Eighteen

There are four places in Madras and its environs, other than San Thome, that the Portuguese associated with St. Thomas. The first is a rocky hillock called Little Mount, four miles south-west of Mylapore, on the south bank of the Adyar River at Saidapet. Fr. Herman D’Souza, in In the Steps of St. Thomas, writes, “Hoary tradition among Catholics and non-Catholics … proudly holds that this part of [Madras] extended shelter to the Apostle, when the ministers of the local king, Mahadevan, were out to murder him…. The favourite of the king, Thomas was ever in danger of losing his precious life — thanks to the scheming ministers whipped up by Hindu priests…. There is a version that the Apostle was actually handled brutally more than once in his apartment, in the absence of the king. In order to save his life for yet a little while for the greater glory of God, Thomas is reported to have sought refuge in the jungle of Little Mount.”

This sly communal tale, invented by Jesuits and improved on by Fr. D’Souza, is peculiar to Madras. He tries to establish Hindu support for the story by quoting Hindu publications that repeat it. But Hindu traditions about Little Mount and the other “St. Thomas” sites are quite different and much older than those of the Portuguese.[62] They believe that the hillock, with its cave and spring and imprint of peacock’s feet in the rock, was sacred to Murugan, and Hindu women used to visit the site even after the Portuguese had cleared it of shrines. In 1551, a church was built by the cave, called Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and the Jesuits built a second church by the spring of which nothing remains today. The archaeological evidence on the site was destroyed years ago when it was blasted to make way for the modern circular church, called Our Lady of Health, that now stands there.

St. Thomas had to leave Little Mount when the king’s men found him in the cave. He fled to Big Mount, two miles further south, by a secret underground passage. But Big Mount did not offer refuge either. Fr. D’Souza writes, “His murderers sought him there and were on the point of seizing him. How long St. Thomas made his abode on the top of the hill, one cannot say. Unbroken tradition maintains that while the Apostle was praying before the cross carved by him on a stone, an assassin suborned by King Mahadevan’s priest and ministers, crept up stealthily and pierced him with a lance from behind. Thereupon the Apostle is reported to have fallen on the stone cross and embraced it; his blood crimsoned the stone cross and the space around. Thus did he seal his apostolate with his blood, even as the other Apostles, save St. John…. His disciples took his body to [Mylapore] … and interred it at his dear old place, about the year AD 68.”

This rendition of the fable has no equivalent in Malabar and no relationship to the account in the Acts of Thomas, though it does have in it the priest and lance found in the Portuguese De Miraculis Thomae. There is no record that Mylapore had a temporal king of any name in 68 CE — the date first appeared on a memorial plaque in San Thome Cathedral in the eighteenth century and was afterwards incorporated into the story. But as is the case with many historical fabrications, it contains an element of truth and this gives the fictional parts credibility. Mahadevan is a reference to Lord Shiva, who was of course the King of Mylapore in the first century CE, even as He is today — though Catholic writers today try to turn the Persian king Mazdai (Masdai or Misdaeus) of the Acts of Thomas into a Mylapore king called Mahadevan.

Dr. R. Arulappa, in Punitha Thomayar, asserts that Big Mount was originally called Bhrigu Malai (Brungi in Tamil) and was the seat of the Hindu sage Bhrigu Rishi (Brungi Munivar) until St. Thomas came and chased him away. This story, like the one above, is another piece of fiction that has at its core a little truth. The hill was sacred to Shiva whom Bhrigu Rishi worshiped, and it is the Portuguese who chased the rishi away, not St. Thomas. The temple was destroyed around 1545, when they gained effective control of the hill, which was the highest point in the area and the southern limit of their territory. Portuguese historians describe it as being crowded with ruins then, and broken temple stones could still be found on its slopes, on the south and west side in 1995. The Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore has since cleaned up the evidence — with the connivance of the Archaeological Survey of India? — and completely rebuilt the hill-top.

The Portuguese had begun to settle around Big Mount as early as 1523 — the same year they “discovered” the tomb of “St. Thomas” — and one of the first to take up residence there was Diogo Fernandez. He would succeed in erecting a small chapel on the hill before 1545, but the construction of the church, called Our Lady of Expectation, did not commence until 1547. It was built on the east-west alignment of the temple foundation — the ancient granite base of the flag pole is on the eastern side of the church and this writer had observed it in 1991 — but the Portuguese reversed this order in keeping with established Christian practice when building on a Pagan site, and the church entrance is on the western side. In 1707, the building was extended by an Armenian merchant who also constructed the stairs going up the hill to the church, and the royal arms of Portugal were added to the façade of the main porch.

It was when clearing the rubble for the church, in 1547, that the Portuguese “discovered” the famous Persian “St. Thomas” cross in the temple foundation. Diogo Fernandez is not implicated in this fraud, but the Vicar of San Thome, Fr. Gaspar Coelho, and the Captain of the Coromandel, Gabriel de Athaide, are, as the construction was under their direct supervision. St. Thomas could not have carved this cross;[63] it has been dated to the eighth century, and like its counterparts in Kerala was carved by a Syrian Christian named Afras who inscribed its border in Pahlavi (Persian) script. It was kept inside the church behind the altar, and used to “bleed” at irregular intervals up to 1704. This phenomenon stopped as soon as the sensible and schismatic British began to move into the area and build a cantonment.

The other “St. Thomas” relic in the church is a brightly coloured icon of Mary and the child Jesus. It is said to have been painted by St. Luke[64] and brought to India by St. Thomas, who wore it on his chest as a scapular or badge of mission. In fact, it does not appear in Portuguese records until 1559, and the diverse stories that go with it were invented after this date.

The church also has paintings of St. Thomas and his Hindu assassin. One of them, on the reredos of the altar, depicts an Iyengar Brahmin with namam about to stab the praying apostle from behind. It defeats its purpose inasmuch as Vaishnavas did not wear namam, the sectarian U-shaped forehead mark, until after Ramanuja introduced it in the eleventh century. The other painting, very large and part of a series of the apostles and their various modes of death, shows St. Thomas with a book, a lance, and his sturdy Hindu assassin, who, this time, does not wear sectarian marks or orthodox dress.

The next place in Madras associated with St. Thomas is the Descanco Church in Mylapore, which was built by the Madeiros family to mark the place where story says St. Thomas rested on his daily march between the Mylapore beach and Little Mount. It is the last church the Portuguese raised in Madras and of a later date and lesser importance than the others.

And finally there is Luz Church, the first church the Portuguese would build in Mylapore and possibly the oldest standing Portuguese church on the Tamil coastline. It, too, is built on temple ruins, according to Archaeological Survey of India records, and was raised in 1516 by the Franciscan missionary priest Pedro da Atongia. The Catholic fortnightly Madras Musings says, “But with the Portuguese only occasional visitors to this coast from 1509 and settlers only from 1522, the dates on the stone plaque and above the church’s entrance seem more likely the date of the establishment of a shrine in the ‘grove of Thomas’ than the date of the surviving building.”

Yes, indeed — but the “grove of Thomas” once contained a “pool of Vishnu”. What happened to it in 1516?


62. If independent scholars ever make an objective study of the St. Thomas tradition in Madras and the Portuguese sites associated with it, they will have to take into consideration the older and more weighty Hindu traditions associated with the same sites.

63. Christians did not adopted the cross as their religious symbol until the third century (or later according to some church historians). St. Thomas was a Jew following Jewish religious custom and the cross used as an instrument of torture and death by the Romans would have been inauspicious and abhorrent to him. Christian crosses were introduced into India by Syrian Christian immigrants in the fourth century.

64. There are seven of these icons by “St. Luke” scattered around the world. The most famous one hangs in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, which was built by Pope Sixtus III in 432 C.E. after he had demolished the Temple of Cybele on the Esquiline Hill. He had hoped to wean the women of Rome away from their favourite Goddess and substitute Her worship with that of the Virgin Mary. Most psychologists think that he failed miserably, and not long ago Pope John Paul II published a diatribe against those American and European women who continue to worship the Great Mother.

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