Chapter Fifteen

If it took the French fifty years to destroy the Vedapuri Iswaran Temple at Pondicherry, it took the Portuguese as long or longer to bring down the Kapaleeswara Temple on the Mylapore beach and build their St. Thomas Church in its place. They, too, would succeed because the Hindus, who had resisted them over the years, ultimately could not resist their superior European weapons and guile.

P.K. Nambiar, in Census of India 1961, Vol. IX, Part XI, writes, “Mylapore, which is a part of Madras city, is an ancient town. Sri Tiruvalluvar, the author of the famous Kural known as Tamil Vedham, who lived in the first century AD,[49] lived his entire life at Mylapore. Saints Sambandar and Appar have composed songs mentioning the God of Mylapore as Shri Kapaleeswara. It was a prosperous town when the English built the Fort St. George in 1593. But the present temple does not contain any feature of the Dravidian style of architecture. The carvings in the pillars are poor specimens compared with those in some of the ancient temples. When there was an erosion of the sea about the close of the last century, there was a landslip on the San Thome beach. It revealed carved stone pillars and broken stones of mandapam found only in Hindu temples. 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 other 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.”

This is the understatement of a government historiographer writing in an official publication. M. Arunachalam, in an article in Christianity in India: A Critical Study, is more direct when he writes, “The Kapaleeswara Temple at Mylapore, Madras, is a standing example of Christian desecration. The great temple of Shiva at Mylapore was situated not in its present site, but at the site of the present San Thome Church even up to the end of the 16th century. It was demolished by the Portuguese vandals and their missionaries of that period, who erected their church on the site where the Hindu temple originally stood.

“Rama Raya, the Vijayanagar ruler, to save the Hindu temples, waged a war on the Portuguese in Mylapore and Goa simultaneously. The Portuguese were defeated and he took a tribute from them for their vandalism. But, when the Vijayanagar rule fell at the Battle of Talikota (1565) before the Mohammedans, the Portuguese continued their demolition work.”

Rama Raya came to Mylapore in 1559, and R.S. Whiteway, in The Rise of Portuguese Power in India, observes that “when San Thome was held to ransom for the intolerant acts of some Jesuits and Franciscans, the Raja of Vijayanagar kept such faith with the Portuguese that, as one of them says, such humanity and justice are not to be found among Christians.”

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.” M. Arunachalam also 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.”

V.R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, quoted in Tiru Mayil Kapaleecharam Kumbhabisheka Malar 1982, believed that the great Shiva temple covered the area now occupied by the palace of the Roman Catholic bishop of Madras. This estate, on the south side of San Thome Cathedral, still contains scattered temple ruins and includes a museum.[50]

V. Balambal, in Journal of Indian History 1986, Vol. LXIV, Parts 1-3, writes, “According to certain Dutch sources quoted by A. Gelletti, the old town of Mylapore was demolished in 1674 by the order of the King of Golconda and was in ruins. This hypothesis is questioned as some epigraphs[51] specify that the old shore Temple of Kapaleeswara was demolished in the 16th century by the Portuguese and some of the ruins including a broken Vinayaka image are still seen scattered within the demesne of the Mylapore bishop’s palace. It is also said that the remnants of the temple, its pillars, etc., were found immersed in the sea sixty years ago.”[52]

Dr. R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu Government, and present Director of the Indian Institute of Culture, Madras, in “Testimony of Religious Ethos”, published in The Hindu, Madras, on 30 April 1990, writes, “A careful study of the monuments and the lithic records in Madras reveal a great destruction caused by the Portuguese to the Hindu temples in the 16th century A.D. The most important Temple of Kapaleeswara lost all its ancient building during the Portuguese devastation and was originally located near the San Thome Cathedral. A few Chola records found in the San Thome Cathedral and Bishop’s House refer to Kapaleeswara Temple and Poompavai.[53] A Chola record in fragment found on the east wall of the San Thome Cathedral refer to the image of Lord Nataraja of the Kapaleeswara Temple. The temple was moved to the present location in the 16th century and was probably built by one Mallappa [or Mayil Nattu Muthiyappa Mudaliar].” Later on he states, “A fragmentary inscription, 12th century Chola record in the San Thome Church region, refers to a Jain temple dedicated to Neminathaswami.”

A. Ekambaranath and C.K. Sivaprakasham, in Jain Inscriptions in Tamil Nadu, following the Jesuit Fr. H. Hosten, describe a stone in the eastern side of the church which records in twelfth century Tamil characters a gift made to Neminathaswami by Palantipara(yan). They remark, “The existence of a Jain temple dedicated to Neminatha at Mylapore (of which San Thome is a part) is not only known from this record, but also from the Mackenzie Manuscripts, recording the transfer of a Neminatha image from Mylapore to Chittamur, probably to protect it from destruction. Some Jain images are said to have been buried by the side of the nunnery at San Thome.”

Fr. H. Hosten’s testimony, in Antiquities from San Thome and Mylapore, is interesting and worthy of review. He writes, “Fragmentary Tamil inscription of eight lines on a stone found at the cathedral, north-west end of the verandah, on the top line of the granite foundations of walls projecting from the verandah into the garden.

“When I visited Mylapore last February, 1924, the stone was still lying near the place of the find. It ought to go to the Bishop’s Museum and receive an appropriate number.

“According to the Assistant Archaeological Superintendent of Epigraphs, Madras, this inscription is a fragment in Tamil and it seems to register a tax-free gift for burning at night a lamp before the image of Kuttaduvar (Nataraja) in the temple of Suramudaiyar. Palaeographically this inscription may be assigned to the 11th century A.D.

“A later communication from the Government Epigraphist for India, Fernhill, Nilgiris, says that Mr. Venkoba Rao, the Assistant Archaeological Superintendent for Epigraphy, Madras, pronounces the inscription belongs to Vikrama Chola’s time (12th century) and that the gift was to the Hindu god Nataraja, whose shrine is always to be seen in a Siva temple.

“The stone was not found at its original site, as is shown by its fragmentary condition, the parts above and below, as well as right and left, being wanting. All we can gather is that the foundations in which the stone was inserted are of a date later than the inscription. To argue, as was done at the time of discovery in the Madras Mail, that, if the stone was dug up from any depth, it would indicate an original Saiva temple, on the ruins of which the Portuguese church of modern St. Thomas was erected, is to show a lamentable ignorance of what Marco Polo and even earlier writers have written about St. Thomas.”

The lamentable ignorance was with Fr. Hosten of course, for accepting unquestioned Marco Polo’s “tall tale”. He did not know that without Marco Polo there is no St. Thomas in a South Indian seashore tomb; he also did not know that all earlier accounts of the legend have St. Thomas buried on a mountain to the west of sub-continental India – in “India”-Parthia, or Edessa, or mysterious Calamina.

The writer in the Madras Mail was mistaken for believing that a stone dug up from a depth must be in its original position, but Fr. Hosten was mistaken for thinking that a stone is not at its original site because it is near the surface of the ground, in a newer foundation and in a fragmentary condition. The plain truth is that the stone should not have been in the church at all. Temple-breakers invariably use the rubble they have created in the new building that they put up at a site, if only because it is available and must be utilised, and it is quite reasonable to assert that if temple stones are found in the walls and foundation of San Thome Cathedral, it is because they have originated there or very near by.

Again, Fr. Hosten writes, “During the excavations made near the tomb this year (1923), when an Indian inscription was found which no one could read, one writer wrote to the Madras Mail to insist that the church was on the site of a Hindu fane. This writer would have been greatly puzzled if we had asked him at which time the place became Christian.”

Indeed, Marco Polo would have been greatly puzzled too, had he been able to investigate the story he had heard from the Syrian Christians in Ceylon. But Fr. Hosten could not do better than follow Marco Polo blindly, and ignore the consistent and continuous claims that Hindus have made to the site since the Portuguese occupied it in the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, he is yet another Catholic scholar working within his own self-defined “sacred space”, oblivious to the established traditions and evidence around him because they are not part of his exclusive mythology and do not fit into his peculiar world view.

San Thome Cathedral and Bishop’s House have been renovated and rebuilt many times over in the last hundred and fifty years, and there is a quiet effort being made by Church authorities to hide the evidence of destroyed Hindu, Jain and Buddhist[54] religious buildings that once occupied this sacred stretch of Mylapore seafront. The clean-up coincides with the work of resurrecting the communal Brahmin-killed-Thomas fable that was first propagated by the Portuguese — Marco Polo cannot be blamed for this story; his St. Thomas was accidentally killed by a pariah hunting peacocks.

Indeed, since this book was published in 1995 the clean-up and rebuilding of San Thome Cathedral’s compound, the second “St. Thomas” tomb, and the whole area surrounding the church on St. Thomas Mount has been total. All evidence of Hindu temples has been clandestinely removed and the ancient rubble disposed of in an unknown place. We have an eye-witness account of this nefarious work done by the Madras-Mylapore Archdiocese later in this book.

The Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits who destroyed the temples of Goa, Kerala, Pondicherry and along the Tamil coast-line, were generally more circumspect than their Muslim counterparts. They did not leave much evidence behind in the churches they built on or near temple sites. But it is also true that Indian archaeologists have not studied Christian churches as closely and in the same probing manner that they have studied mosques and other Muslim monuments. The exception are German scholars whose work on Indian churches is yet to be translated and published in English. They assert that most sixteenth and seventeenth century churches in India contain temple rubble and are built on temple sites.[55]

And there is the written record, some of it couched in strange language or found in a stranger context, but easy enough to interpret once it is established that the account has not been deliberately falsified. For example, Fr. Hosten writes, “The first Portuguese historians say … that St. Thomas built his ‘house’, meaning his church, on the site where a Jogi had his temple.”

This is an open admission by the Portuguese that a church had been built on a temple site at Mylapore — only they have backdated the event to the first century and attributed the crime to St. Thomas. How extraordinary — or is it? The Portuguese, and Syrian Christians before them, had given the “honour” of temple-breaking to St. Thomas at Palayur, north of Cranganore, where an early seventeenth century Portuguese church built by the Jesuit Fr. James Fenicio rises amidst temple ruins today. Fr. A Mathias Mundadan, in History of Christianity in India, Vol. I, writes, “The remains of old temples found at Palayur and near the other traditional churches[56] are proof of this.” Proof of what? Proof, it would seem, that St. Thomas destroyed temples at all the places where he is said to have built churches.

St. Thomas can be accused of many things, including crimes against women (as recorded in the Acts of Thomas), but he cannot be accused of destroying temples in India. This was done by his followers from about the ninth century onwards, and later by the Portuguese, and Christian historians who take the position that he did the deeds himself, citing them as “positive” proof that he came to India, cannot be taken seriously.

Dr. R. Arulappa, the former Archbishop of Madras, is one such facile scholar — and yet he has made some unusual contributions to the study of Tamil history. In his book Punitha Thomayar — where he tries to show that Tiruvalluvar’s Kural is a Christian work — he mentions the finding of yantra stones in ancient foundations on all the sites in Madras associated with St. Thomas. He does not expand on these momentous discoveries or say where the stones are today, and it is not clear why he refers to them, but it is certainly true that the Agama Shastra requires the placing of such stones beneath the foundations of new temples before their construction begins.

The Portuguese historian Gaspar Correa, probably the most credulous annalist in history, describes extensive ruins in Mylapore and its environs including Big Mount. He attributes this devastation to the wind and rain and angry sea rather than his bigoted and iconoclastic countrymen. But at the same time he gives backhanded testimony for a Shiva temple on the Mylapore beach. In Lendas da India, quoted by George Mark Moraes in A History of Christianity in India, he writes, “On their festival days the Hindus would bring their images accompanied by large crowds and great rejoicing and would, as they approached the door of the church, lower them three times to the ground as a mark of reverence to it, a practice which had been followed from time immemorial.”

The practice had indeed been followed from time immemorial, in the first Shiva temple where it originated, whose place on the beach was now usurped by the Portuguese church. The practice was to take the festival image around the temple and lower them three times to the ground, at the sanctum door before the muladeva. The Hindus were continuing the ritual in the second temple, and by taking the festival images to the church on the beach were reverencing the ancient mulasthana — even if Christians and Gaspar Correa vainly thought otherwise.

R.S. Whiteway, in The Rise of Portuguese Power in India, writes, “[The Portuguese historians] all … dilate on the discovery of the tomb of the Apostle Thomas at a spot near where Madras now stands; the narrative of Correa is singularly naïve, and as he was an eyewitness to some of the earlier transactions, singularly valuable. It leaves a feeling of wonder that in such an entire absence of evidence the identification of an event historical or otherwise should be thought complete.”


49. Today Tamil scholars say that Tiruvalluvar lived before the Christian era, usually placing him ca. 100 BCE, but some date him as early as ca. 200 BCE. The Madras-Mylapore Archdiocese claims he lived in the first century CE and that he was a disciple of St. Thomas. It is probable that his samadhi shrine was in or near the precincts of the ancient Kapaleeswara Temple on the beach and was destroyed when the Portuguese destroyed the temple.

50. This is a small building on the north-east end of the estate and is called the San Thome Cathedral Museum. It contains — or used to contain — ancient carved stones and other temple artefacts. In 1990 a friend of this writer was refused entry on three occasions, though it was then ostensibly open to the public. Since the publication of this book in 1991, it was closed and kept in an inaccessible condition, but was opened again in 1995. We don’t know its condition or position today in 2010. Its original contents and the carved stones that were lying in the Bishop’s estate and San Thome churchyard — which the Church authorities have no moral right to possess — should have been removed to the Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology or Madras Museum long ago. It is too late now: the Archdiocese has cleaned up the area and disposed of all Hindu temple remnants in an unknown place.

51. See Annual Report on Epigraphy 1923, Nos. 215 to 223.

52. See A.M. Paramasivanandam’s Ancient Temples of Tamilnadu.

53. Poompavai was the daughter of a wealthy sixth century Mylapore merchant called Siva Nesan Chettiar. He wanted to give her in marriage to the saint Jnanasambandar, but she died from snakebite before meeting him, when picking flowers for the Lord in the garden. Her father cremated her and kept the bones and ashes in a pot. When Jnanasambandar visted Mylapore, the Chettiar kept Poompavai’s ashes in front of him and narrated the story of her death. Jnanasambandar responded by singing eleven songs in praise of Lord Kapaleeswara, lamenting the death of the girl at the end of each song. When he had finished, the pot of ashes burst and a twelve-year-old girl stepped forth. Jnanasambandar then declined to marry her, saying that she was his “daughter”. Poompavai has her own shrine within the precincts of the Kapaleeswara Temple.

54. Dr. Nagaswamy, in The Hindu article “Testimony of Religious Ethos”, mentions the findings of Buddhist relics and a mutilated Buddha image in Mylapore. The Chola period image is now in the Madras Museum.

55. Many of the famous churches of Europe are built on Pagan temple sites. They include St. Peter’s, Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Maria Rotunda (The Pantheon) in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, and St. Paul’s in London. St. Benedict built his monastery on an Apollo temple that he had destroyed himself, at Monte Cassino, Italy. The much revered Black Virgins found in churches and monasteries in Spain and Italy are images of the Egyptian Goddess Isis and Her son Horus. The list is very long.

56. These are at Malinkara, Parur, Gokamangalam, Niranam, Chayal and Kurakonikollam in Kerala, and Tiruvithancodu in Tamil Nadu (this being the “half church”, which is a converted Hindu temple).