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 was a redaction of the Acts of Thomas, but both Latin books contained a major diversion from the original story that would, like the seashore tomb in the Milione, permanently alter the course of the St. Thomas legend after the Portuguese had established themselves in Mylapore. 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 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, largely European in character, that they identified with various Hindu sites in Malabar and Mylapore.
The Portuguese story has not changed very much till today, though it has many variations. Victor J.F. Kulanday, in The Paganization of the Church in India, writes, “According to tradition, hallowed by time and strongly held by the Christians of Kerala, St. Thomas after visiting Socotra, an island in the Arabian Sea, landed near Cranganore on the Periyar estuary, north of Cochin in 52 AD. He preached the Gospel and converted a number of people to Christianity. Later, he travelled further south and converted many more. Among those who embraced Christianity were several Namboodiri Brahmin families considered among Hindus as the highest class. He ordained priests from four of these families – Pakalomatton, Shankarapuri, Kalli and Kaliankal. He founded churches in seven places — Maliankara, Palayur, Parur, Gokamangalam, Niranam, Chayal and Quilon.
“From the west coast he proceeded to the east and further to Malacca and China. He is believed to have returned after some time to Madras. There his preaching aroused hostility among Brahmins and he was speared to death on July 3, 72 AD. He met his end on a hill now bearing the name St. Thomas Mount. He was buried at a place called Mylapore in Madras. Over his tomb now stands the Basilica of San Thome.”
One version of the fable asserts that he converted 6,850 Brahmins, 2,800 Kshatriyas, 3,750 Vaishyas and 4,250 Shudras. Another version maintains it was 17,490 Brahmins, 350 Vaishyas and 4,280 Shudras — Kshatriyas are not included except for the Raja of Tiruvanchikulam. In a third version 40 Jews are among the converts, and in a fourth the converts are the Raja’s son and son-in-law, some Brahmins, and a lone barber to keep them all trimmed and shaved (he also would have had to circumcise the male converts, as Judas Thomas was an orthodox Jew and not part of St. Paul’s innovations in favour of the Gentiles).
There are also the miracles, all carefully catalogued by the Portuguese: 19 raised from the dead, 260 exorcised of their demons, 330 cured of leprosy, 250 of blindness, 120 of paralysis and 20 of dumbness.
And there is the famous curse of Cochin, that its inhabitants might suffer from elephantiasis which is now called St. Thomas Foot in that city.
This is the South Indian version of the St. Thomas fable which now passes for Indian history. It was compiled by the Portuguese, but T.K. Joseph, a “St. Thomas” Christian scholar (the first to put the appellation between quotation marks), in Six St. Thomases of South India, points out that the legend is now said to be based on the alleged but non-existent St. Thomas Biography composed by a St. Thomas disciple in 73 CE. The Biography, which nobody has ever seen, is said to be summarised in the St. Thomas Song “of 1601”, which, again, is the same as the Rabban Pattu that was composed by Varghese Palayur in 1892 and first published in 1916 by Fr. Bernard of Travancore.
Now the fact that the South Indian St. Thomas story was not written down until 1892, as T.K. Joseph testifies, is an extraordinary circumstance for so famous a piece of Indian “history”. It also brings Bishop Medleycott of Trichur back into the picture. He was the great St. Thomas advocate in South India from 1887 to 1896, and had the motive and means to assist Varghese Palayur in writing his “ancient” composition.
The Vatican had declared the apostolate of St. Thomas in South India as unverified after studying the Rabban Pattu, but the Roman Catholic Church then and now is still the only entity that reaps any benefit from the propagation of the myth among Indians.
Whatever the truth of the matter and whoever the real author of the current South Indian legend — aside from the Portuguese — Vincent A. Smith, in The Oxford History of India, writes “Both stories [— the one in the Acts and the one in South India —] obviously cannot be true; even an apostle can die but once. My personal impression, formed after much examination of the evidence, is that the story of the martyrdom in southern India is the better supported of the two versions of the saint’s death. But it is by no means certain that St. Thomas was martyred at all. An early writer, Heracleon the Gnostic, asserts that he ended his days in peace.”
Heracleon was from Italy or Sicily and flourished around ca. 180 CE. He led a westernising Italian school of Gnosticism, probably at Rome, which diverged from the better known oriental school of Valentinus that Bardesanes followed. His testimony regarding the natural death of St. Thomas carries more weight than that of Bardesanes who mythicised the apostle thirty years later in the Acts, to promote his own theological views.
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.”
And 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.”
33. The various dates given for St. Thomas’s arrival in Malabar and death near Madras are nineteenth century additions to the legend. Some of the dates given for his arrival are 50, 51, 53, 58, 65, 67 and 68 CE, and for his death are 73, 75, 78, 82, 90 and 93 CE.
34. The archaeological evidence indicates that these churches were built after the ninth century by Nestorian immigrants from Persia. The famous church at Palayur north of Cranganore was built by the Portuguese and is dedicated to the the fourth century martyr St. Cyriac (Mar Kuriakkos Sahada). Fr. Herman D’Souza, in In the Steps of St. Thomas, writes, “The [Palayur] temple deserted by the Brahmins as a result of St. Thomas’s efforts, was turned into a church. Pieces of broken idols and remnants of the old temple were lying around the church till a short time ago. Two large tanks, one on the eastern side of the church and the other near the western gate, are tell-tale relics of the ancient glory of the Hindu temple.” D’Souza was writing in 1983 and includes pictures of the old temple walls, well and tank in his book. He is blaming St. Thomas for the temple-breaking activities of the Portuguese and Syrian Christians.
35. According to Namboodiri Brahmins themselves, they are the original Vedic Brahmins of Kerala. However there is no historical record to support this claim. Marxist historians claim that Namboodiri Brahmins arrived in Kerala only in the sixth century, though there is a record for Mezhathol Agnihothri (b. 342 CE), the Namboodiri who rejuvenated the ancient Shrauta traditions in Kerala in the fourth century CE. Therefore we may infer that the Namboodiri Brahmin community may have included Syrian Christian immigrants who had converted to Vedic Hinduism. The claim that St. Thomas converted four Namboodiri families to Christianity was invented by Syrian Christians to give themselves caste status. It is doubtful if Judus Thomas would have called himself a Christian; he was a practising Jew who would neither build churches nor carve crosses (the latter being abhorrent to his cultural sensibilities and not used as a Christian identity symbol until after the third century). The designation “Christian” was first used for St. Paul’s converts in Antioch after 45 CE.
36. This hill is crowned with a Portuguese church dedicated to the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Expectation, and was built around 1547 on the foundations of a demolished Hindu temple. It contains a wooden icon of the Virgin said to be painted by St. Luke and given to St. Thomas at Jerusalem, at Jerusalem, an eighth century Persian “bleeding” cross said to have been carved by St. Thomas (which stopped bleeding as soon as the British moved into the area), and two paintings of St. Thomas and his spear-bearing Hindu assassin. The older painting fixed behind the altar suggests an Iyengar Brahmin wearing namam on his forehead, about to stab the praying apostle from behind, and the other painting, one of a series of the martyred apostles, shows an unidentified Hindu as the assassin.
37. This nineteenth century Gothic cathedral is built on a high point of the Mylapore beach and replaces the sixteenth century Portuguese church that was built on the same site. Both the church and bishop’s house beside it are built over the area of the original Kapaleeswara Temple demolished by the Portuguese. The church, now designated a minor basilica, is dedicated to St. Thomas and contains two of his tombs, two sets of his relics including the bit of arm bone from Ortona, Italy, and the metal spearhead that is to have killed him. Other churches in Madras that are associated with St. Thomas and are identified as having been built on temple sites are Luz Church in Mylapore and Our Lady of Health Church on Little Mount at Saidapet.