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. He 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. 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. It was then 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 churches on the ruins, pretending the sites were those of St. Thomas’s martyrdom and burial.

The Thomas-in-India legend is the prototype story for the newer Jesus-in-India story. The Jesus-in-India story was invented in Paris in 1894 by the Russian forger Nicolas Notovitch and became immediately popular with theosophists and other western spiritualists. It is an attractive fable with lots of facts and figures added, but if it is looked at closely it falls apart. When Max Muller asked Notovitch to provide proofs for his claim, he could not do it. But he was a very clever storyteller and his Jesus-died-in-Kashmir tale is still popular today. The keeper of the Roza Bal Sufi shrine in Srinagar, which contains the alleged tomb of Jesus, has had to lock it up to keep the foreign backpackers and tourists at bay.[1]

Both of these historical fictions are attractive to foreign spiritual seekers and modern convent-educated Hindus because they fancy the idea that an apostle of Jesus, or Jesus himself, may have visited India. The Hindus usually do not notice that in these stories neither Jesus nor Thomas are presented as seekers of India’s eternal truth or admirers of Hindu religion and culture. They are presented instead as teachers of a superior truth or as enlightened social reformers who are persecuted by the jealous priests of a degenerate heathen society.

Whether the legends are set in Palayur or Mylapore as is the case with Thomas, or Puri and Benares and later Kashmir, as is the case with Jesus, the theme of persecution and martyrdom is the same. The “superior” teachings of both prophets are rejected and their lives threatened by “reactionary” caste Hindus. Thomas is murdered on a hilltop near Madras by a jealous Brahmin priest and Jesus is stoned and driven from the country by a mob – only to return and marry a princess of Kashmir after surviving the Crucifixion.[2]

The first objective of these stories is to vilify Brahmins and malign the Hindu religion and community. The second objective – and here we part company with the Jesus story – is to present Christianity as an indigenous Indian religion, not an import and product of Western imperialism. If it can be shown that St. Thomas came to India and established the first Christian church in Malabar, then Christianity can claim religious hegemony in India and even claim to be the “original” religion of the Tamil people.

The Syrian Church does not press the political issue of St. Thomas in India, but the Roman Church does claim India as part of her apostolic patrimony on the grounds that St. Thomas may have died here. The disclaimer “may” must be noted for the Church does not officially declare – and Pope Benedict XVI has categorically denied – that St. Thomas came to South India.

The third reason for the legend to exist is to help the community-conscious Syrian Christians maintain their caste identity. They claim to be Jews or Brahmins, the latter descendants of Namboodiris converted by St. Thomas in the first century CE – though there were no Namboodiris in Malabar in the first century and no Christians in India before the fourth century. When Christians did arrive under the leadership of Thomas of Cana and settled in the vicinity of Tiruvanchikulam, they would obtain a social position similar to that of Nairs.

The first Indian St. Thomas story was invented by these Syrian immigrants to give themselves Indian ancestry and the patronage of a local martyr-saint – Christianity is the religion of martyrs[3] – and it was resurrected and embellished in the sixteenth century by Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries who needed a pious story of persecution to cover up their own persecution of the Hindus of Mylapore. This is another reason for the Church to promote the story in Madras, for during that period she and her imperial Portuguese “secular arm” destroyed many temples in Mylapore and its environs.

The Archaeological Survey of India has never investigated the origins of early Christian churches in India in the same way that it has studied old mosques and other Muslim monuments, but this work has been done by German scholars and awaits translation and publication in English. It shows that most sixteenth and seventeenth century churches in India contain temple rubble and are built on temple sites. The destruction of one of these temples, the ancient first Kapaleeswara Temple on the Mylapore beach, is reviewed here because of its inexorable link with the legend of St. Thomas in Madras.

The famous English historian Arnold Toynbee observed that the mission and death of St. Thomas in India was legendary but that his reported burial place in Mylapore was a centre of pilgrimage for Indian Christians. We observe that this pretended burial place of St. Thomas – an empty tomb that has been refurbished at the cost of lakhs of rupees since the publication of this book in 1991 – must now become a centre of pilgrimage for archaeologists, historians and philosophers who do not have a theological axe to grind like the pilgrims of old and the priests of today, but who would know the plain truth about old Mylapore and record it for our children.[4]

Ishwar Sharan

1. Another famous book of this kind is Levi’s psychic and sententious “transcription from the Akashic Records”, of 1908, called The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ.

2. A. Faber-Kaiser, in Jesus Died in Kashmir, claims that Moses is buried on Mt. Niltoop near Bandipur, Kashmir, Jesus in the Roza Bal in Srinagar, Mary in Murree, Pakistan, and that Thomas was cremated in Mylapore. There are half a dozen books on this curious Indian sojourn of Jesus published today by different authors.

3. Gore Vidal, in Julian, describes the vicious attacks made on Emperor Julian “the Apostate” by Christian bishops because he refused to give them martyrs. He had rejected Christianity as a false religion and returned to classical Paganism, but he continued to treat Christians with tolerance and engage in interfaith dialogues with the bishops. He argued and debated with them and made them pay reparations for the temples they had destroyed in the provinces of the Roman Empire. He was assassinated in Ctesiphon (near Baghdad) by a trusted Christian officer while on campaign against the Persians. The story that his last words were “Thou hast conquered, Nazarene!” is a Christian invention. Emperor Julian is still revered by those Europeans who realise that Christianity destroyed a superior Greek and Roman civilisation and took Europe into the Dark Ages.

4. A similar introduction to this one was published in the first and second editions of this book. We have carefully kept the original last line intact as it has been so much “appreciated” by the editors of The Hindu and Indian Express. They have published articles promoting the St. Thomas fable on their children’s pages after reading it. We suggest that they now approach Dr. R. Nagaswamy, eminent San Thome archaeologist, for more articles on the same subject for adults. He had promised to write an introduction for the 1995 edition of this book but was not able to do it. His attitude to the St. Thomas legend and San Thome Cathedral remains an enigma. He has all the facts and figures of the building of the Portuguese church in his possession as he was the leading archaeologist who worked on the site. But he has remained silent during all these years of controversy except for a short piece in The Hindu in 1990. Is he another pusillanimous government officer afraid to speak out?