Chapter Eight

Bishop Giovanni dei Marignolli, a Franciscan friar from Florence, visited Mylapore in 1349 on his return journey to Italy from China. His notes are full of St. Thomas exotica. He had baptized some Syrian Christians and lower caste Hindus the year before, in Quilon, and built a Roman Catholic church there. Historically, he is the first person on record to use the appellation “St. Thomas Christians”. He did this to distinguish the Syrian Christians in his congregation from the Hindu converts. Niccolo dei Conti, from Venice, visited in ca. 1425, and records that there were about a thousand Nestorians, i.e., Syrian Christians, in Mylapore. Lodovico de Varthema, from Bologna, visited between 1503 and 1508, and Durate Barbosa, the first Portuguese visitor, came in 1509, and describes a “St. Thomas tomb” in a dilapidated building that was occupied by a Muslim fakir. Diogo Fernandez, also Portuguese, came in 1517 with some Armenian merchants who were returning to Malabar from Malacca. He is an ambiguous figure who will play a key role in the evolution of the St. Thomas myth after Mylapore was occupied by the Portuguese.

Lodovico de Varthema and Duarte Barbosa were soldiers of fortune who spent their time at Vijayanagar. There is no reason to believe that they actually visited Mylapore. Their stories, like Marco Polo’s, were collected in the bazaar from Muslim and Christian pilgrims and retold in their adventure books, to please the European audience of the day. Conti’s account, called India in the Fifteenth Century, is more serious and considered authentic. But whether or not these travellers actually came to Mylapore is not important; they are all repeating the same St. Thomas tale told up and down the South Indian coasts by the Syrian Christians.