Chapter Seventeen

If St. Thomas was a carpenter slave, then Diogo Fernandez is the gentleman architect who laid the foundation stone for his church on the Mylapore beach. He was Albuquerque’s attendant at Goa and is described by N. Figuerdo, in St. Thomas the Apostle in Mylapore, as “a virtuous old man of good conduct”. Very probably he was―so long as the virtue did not interfere with the demands of his Roman Catholic faith. He arrived at Mylapore in 1517 in the company of some wealthy Armenian merchants who were coming from Malacca. They knew Marco Polo’s story and knew, too, that the “Thomas” revered by Syrian Christians at Mylapore was not a martyr. This was not a very satisfactory circumstance for them or the Portuguese. Their passionate nature and martyrolatrous religion required a sacrifice.[57] All the apostles had suffered martyrdom except St. John,[58] and St. Thomas was not going to get away with an accidental death in Portuguese territory. Moreover, if the Portuguese knew Marco Polo’s story, they knew better the Latin fables Passio Thomae and De Miraculis Thomae, which had been circulating in Europe for a thousand years. Both legends deviated from the Acts of Thomas, in which St. Thomas had been executed by king’s men with spears, and described his death as being at the hands of a Pagan priest of the Sun―or Zoroastrian―who, in one, had stabbed him with a lance, and in the other, with a sword. The Portuguese preferred De Miraculis Thomae, in which the priest used a lance, and had the romance published in Portugal in 1531 and 1552 to substantiate the “discovery” they had made at Mylapore in 1523. It did not matter to them that this European story, too, had St. Thomas buried on a mountain, while they had in their possession only a seashore tomb.

Earlier, in 1521-22, the Portuguese had opened two tombs in the Shiva temple’s northern precincts. One tomb contained a “black” skeleton, which, according to its inscription, belonged to a Chola king. The Portuguese nevertheless “identified” him as being a disciple of St. Thomas. The second tomb revealed a “white” skeleton, which, naturally, “belonged” to the white Jew Thomas. This second skeleton was sent to Goa for verification―where it languishes till today, unsung and unrecognised.

As these diggings did not produce the required result, Diogo Fernandez was asked, in 1523, to excavate a third tomb which lay partly under the foundation of a dilapidated building that had been occupied by the Portuguese. He refused at first but was persuaded by the attending priest, Fr. Antonio Gil, who heard his confession and that of the two men, Braz Fernandez and Diogo Lourenco, who would assist him in the pious enterprise. They then began the excavation of a deep and elaborate, and very much empty, tomb. It was Saturday afternoon, and they continued the work into the late evening, when, on the suggestion of Diogo Fernandez, they abandoned their unproductive labours and retired for the night. The excavation was left open and unattended until the next morning, a Sunday, when the men returned and began digging again. It was not long now before the grave disgorged bones that were “much worn out”, portions of skull and spine, and a clay pot of earth “bedewed with blood”, with a thigh bone in it, and hidden in the red earth an iron spearhead shaped like an olive leaf, which, after fifteen Christian centuries, still had a piece of wooden shaft miraculously preserved in its socket.[59]

The bones of “St. Thomas” were collected―there was no doubt this time in the Portuguese mind that they were his―and later, with due ceremony, placed in a Chinese coffer with silver locks, along with the bones of the Chola king, another “disciple” whose remains had been found nearby, and those of two children. The key to the coffer was then sent to the Viceroy at Goa, but two years later Fr. Penteado broke the locks as he felt that the bones were in a poor condition and needed attention. He transferred them to a wooden chest and hid this in a place known only to himself and Rodrigo Alvares. The chest was then presumed to be lost, and, in 1530, a new search was mounted for the relics. Diogo Fernandez was again called in and through his intercession with Rodrigo Alvares, the chest was found in a decayed condition under the main altar of the church―for a small church, the first Christian church to rise on the Mylapore beach, had been built, in 1523, by Augustinian friars beside the newly found “St. Thomas” tomb.

Fr. Hosten, in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 1923, writes, “If what the Portuguese found at Mylapore in 152[3] in a tomb … was not part of St. Thomas’s body, then the whole connection with St. Thomas seems to be lost.”

Fr. Hosten would come to accept the story that St. Thomas had come to South India, but not on the evidence of the excavations made by himself or the Portuguese. He was persuaded, like other Catholic scholars, by the spurious St. Thomas song called Rabban Pattu that had been composed by Varghese Palayur in 1892 and published in 1916 by Fr. Bernard of Travancore.

Fr. Heras, former Director of the Historical Research Institute, St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, who had said in 1953 that he was convinced that the tomb of St. Thomas was not in Mylapore, had said earlier and emphatically, in The Aravidu Dynasty of Vijayanagar, that the Portuguese account of their discovery of some relics was “a most barefaced imposture [with] all elements of a forgery.”

This is certainly true and it is one of the wonders of modern Catholic scholarship that the depositions of Diogo Fernandez made in 1533 and 1543 are accepted as authentic―especially as they include a most fanciful Christianised history of Mylapore from before the time of the Portuguese.

St. Francis Xavier visited Mylapore in 1545 and had nothing to say about Diogo Fernandez’s report, which he read, or the relics and tomb which he prayed before. Yet his Jesuit biographer, Fr. Georg Schurhammer, strictly adhering to the Jesuit discipline of specious reasoning―and criticizing Fr. Heras for not doing so―treats both the relics and reports as authentic in his Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times.

But if for the sake of argument it is agreed that the depositions of Diogo Fernandez are not fabricated―he could have been an uninformed witness to the “discovery”―then it must be said that the relics themselves most certainly are, in keeping with the ancient tradition of fraud so dear to the Church,[60] Veda Prakash, in Indiavil Saint Thomas Kattukkadai, shows that the relics were produced out of materials brought from Goa and then planted in the empty tomb. He also shows that the Portuguese reworked the existing Syrian Christian version of the myth, changing the Syriac be ruhme, meaning “by spear”, to read Brahmins in order to implicate Brahmins in the apostle’s murder. The Malabar tradition was thus brought into line with the European romance, De Miraculis Thomae, where St. Thomas is killed by a Pagan priest with a lance―though the contradiction of lance in the story and spear-head in the reliquary remains today.

The question of whether the Portuguese relics are genuine or not―and whether the South Indian legend is history or not―will be conclusively answered as soon as the Archbishop of Madras gives them to independent forensic experts for testing. But he may be also aware that such a gesture would be redundant, as all of the bones of St. Thomas were resting in the cathedral at Ortona, Italy, while Diogo Fernandez was digging for them in Mylapore. They had been there since 1258, and before that at Chios, Greece, and Edessa, and in 1566 the Bishop of Ortona had issued a Deed of Verification for these bones, which, in itself, proves that the bones produced by the Portuguese out of the Mylapore tomb cannot possibly be those of St. Thomas.[61]

The Portuguese themselves appear to have treated this “momentous discovery” in a cavalier fashion, which is why the relics got lost in 1525. When they were located again, in 1530, the bones and spearhead―shaped like an olive leaf, though there were no olive trees in India―were transferred to a small box, locked up in a chapel in the church, and the key kept by the pastor.

This church, originally built in 1523 and called San Thome or San Thome de Meliapore, was subsequently enlarged and extended, and the encroachment on the Kapaleeswara Temple began in earnest. The Christians had done this before, building a church against a temple wall and then taking over the temple, and that the Shiva temple survived as long as it did, up to 1566 according to some authorities, is grand testimony to the patient and courageous resistance the Hindus of Mylapore had put up against this ruthless Catholic power.

In 1606 the Pope, at the request of the King of Portugal, made San Thome de Meliapore into a diocese independent of Goa. The church was extended again and became the seat of a bishop, but, in 1893, this building was demolished by the bishop and the present Gothic cathedral put up in its place. It was completed and consecrated in 1896. In 1952 the Archdiocese of Madras and Mylapore was constituted, and in 1956, after much lobbying by the Indian hierarchy, Pope Pius XII raised the status of San Thome Cathedral to that of a minor basilica. This church dignity is of no consequence but it affords the archbishop some minor liturgical privileges.

Diogo Fernandez’s “St. Thomas” relics still remain in the church today. The iron spearhead and piece of skull are kept in a monstrance, along with the relics of St. Francis Xavier, St. Isabella, St. Vincentio and the Martyrs of Morocco. The first “St. Thomas” tomb, which contained the “white” skeleton that was sent to Goa, is empty and ignored, but the second “St. Thomas” tomb is pointed out to pilgrims and tourists. It contains the remainder of Diogo Fernandez’s “findings”, the pieces of spine and thigh bone, and, presumably, the pot of “blood-bedewed” earth.

Yet this is not the end of the bones at San Thome. The cathedral also has in its possession a piece of Church-certified Ortona bone which it obtained from Cardinal Tisserant in 1953, after he had deposited the apostle’s right arm at Kodungallur (and demoted him from being the great Apostle of the East to simply being the Apostle of India). The pastor of San Thome can now say with some pride that he is the keeper of a real St. Thomas bone―keeping in mind that the acceptance of the Ortona gift is also an admission that the Portuguese relics in his care are not those of St. Thomas.

57. The central rite of Christian worship is the Eucharist (from the Greek for “thanksgiving”). It is considered to be a real sacrifice in which the body and blood of Jesus, under the appearances of bread and wine, are offered to God. The “real” flesh and blood are then consumed by the congregation as an act of communion with Jesus. In the Middle Ages the ceremony was called “eating the Baby”. Christianity is the only world religion that practices ritual cannibalism.

58. There is a story that St. John was boiled in oil at Rome but survived the ordeal. Another story tells of how he was poisoned, and a painting in the Portuguese church on St. Thomas Mount shows him with a poisoned chalice. He probably spent his last years at Ephesus and died there of old age. Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, writes, “The total disregard of truth and probability in the representation of the primitive martyrdoms was occasioned by a very natural mistake. The ecclesiastical writers of the fourth and fifth centuries ascribe to the magistrates of Rome the same degree of implacable and unrelenting zeal which filled their own breasts against the heretics and idolaters of their own times. … The learned Origen, who, from his experience as well as readings, was intimately acquainted with the history of the Christians, declares, in the most express terms, that the number of martyrs was very inconsiderable. His authority would alone be sufficient to annihilate that formidable army of martyrs, whose relics, drawn for the most part from the catacombs of Rome, have replenished so many churches, and whose achievements have been the subject of so many volumes of holy romances.”

59. The relics “discovered” by Diogo Fernandez were located at a depth of 15’2’’ and though the tomb was on high ground―the only high ground on this stretch of sea beach, which is why temples were built on it―the possibility of it being damp or seeping water during the monsoon must be considered along with many other geological and topographical factors.

60. Fabricating religious relics is as old a tradition in the Roman Catholic Church as forging documents. The most famous faked relic is the Shroud of Turin, alleged burial cloth of Jesus, but the most lucrative faked relic is the chain that allegedly bound St. Peter in prison, the iron filings of which the popes used to sell to kings and wealthy believers for a large fee. (Perhaps more curious than the chain itself is that a photograph of it appeared in the Jayanti 1992 issue of The Mountain Path, the official organ of Sri Ramanasramam at Tiruvannamalai, after its pious editor had returned from a pilgrimage to Rome.)

61. It is said that the bones were transferred from “India” to Edessa between 222 CE. and 235 CE. (according to the Acts, all of the bones were transferred to Mesopotamia within the lifetime of King Mazdai), from Edessa to Chios in 1144, and from Chios to Ortona in 1258. The bones probably originated at Edessa; but in any case all of the skull was at San Tommaso Cathedral Basilica in Ortona in 1566 when the bishop issued his deed, so there could not have been any skull bone at Mylapore for the Portuguese to find in 1523. The same is true of the other bones, though they, unlike the skull, are not specifically mentioned in the deed.