Several years ago, there was an American (?) turned Hindu ascetic who was never happy whenever I wrote of Thomas Didymus, the Apostle of India. In fact, he wrote a book, I recall, devoting a considerable and angry part of it to my unhistorical approach to the legend of Thomas in particular. I don’t know whether he’s still around, but if he is, I wish he’d realise that articles of faith, like his own, are not disputable, calling, instead, for tolerance. And that a little unhistoric storytelling, like today’s, does no one any harm.
Across the Adyar are the two Mounts of Thomas, to make access to which easy Coja Petrus Uscan built the first bridge across the river. Just across what the bridge has grown into today, to your left and barely peeping over congested construction is Little Mount or Chinna Malai. Legend has it that it was in the cave on this mount, over which the Portuguese built the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in 1551, that Thomas lived during the eight years (64-72 AD) that he spent in Madras. It was from here that he would daily walk to preach on the beach at Mylapore (San Thome beach), stopping to rest in the mango groves that predated St. Mary’s (or Descanco) Church on the road named after it in Raja Annamalaipuram and Luz Church in Mylapore.
Living a life of penance and prayer in the cave, Thomas would come out only to preach to those who gathered on the hillock or to go to the beach. In the east wall of the cave is an opening now barred and by it a palm print. It was through this “window” that he fled to what the Portuguese called El Grande Monti, where he was martyred. The hand print is said to be the saint’s, as is the footprint at the foot of the hill. The cave can be entered by squeezing through an opening by the side of the ornate altar of the ancient chapel. In the cave, with its aura of serenity almost palpably summoning the mediator, is an altar where the faithful light their candles.
Outside, to the rear of the cave is a cross, which, it is believed, Thomas cut into the rock. And it was before it that he prayed and said Mass. Also to the rear of the Portuguese church is a protected natural spring, said to be the result of Thomas striking the rock with his stick to bring forth water to quench the thirst of his parched congregation. Today, the water has curative powers, believers hold.
Next door to the chapel, where once there was a church built in 1711, a new circular church, to Our Lady of Health, was consecrated in 1971 to commemorate the 19th century of the martyrdom of Thomas who was in time to be elevated to sainthood. The new church, is as incongruous in styling as the cinematically styled Stations of the Cross that line the steps that lead up the Mount to the rear of the cave-chapel.
Three kilometres from Little Mount is the 300-feet-high mount that the road we have traversed these past few weeks leads to Parangi Malai, the hill of the foreigners (feringhi) is the St. Thomas’s Mount Marco Polo wrote of in the 13th century as the site of Thomas’s martyrdom. The Nestorian Monastery he had visited here had fallen into ruin when Mylapore’s trade with West Asia died out. And in the first quarter of the 16th century, the Portuguese rebuilt the Nestorian chapel, creating the Church of Our Lady of Expectations which stands today. The 135 steps to the top that Uscan gifted are one way up, and during the December festival is the scene of fervent fulfilment of vows. A road to the rear of the military cantonment is motorable. Whichever way you reach the summit, the simple little church offers a rare serenity and its surroundings a fine view of a city which seems truly green.
During Portuguese excavations on the Mount in the 1540s, a stone cross with Sassanian Pahlavi (A Persian variant) inscriptions on it was found and built into the wall. Called the Bleeding Cross, it owes its name to the legend that it “bled” from time to time, the first time being in 1558. Alongside are relics of St. Thomas and above the 18th century altar an oil-on-wood painting of the Madonna. Mentioned in Portuguese texts as early as 1559, this picture of the Holy Virgin and Child is believed to have been painted by Luke and brought to India by Thomas.
Within the church are Armenian tombstones, the oldest dating to 1707. The altar and pulpit ornamentation also reflect Armenian contribution. And the 14 paintings of Jesus’s disciples lining the walls are inscribed in Armenian and are probably a contribution from an 18th century Armenian benefactor. In fact, by then the church was thought of as an Armenian, and not a Portuguese, one.
The Portuguese themselves are said to have used the flatness of the peak as a platform for a “lighthouse” — lighting bonfires every night to guide their ships into and around San Thome’s waters. Prayers were said for completion or commencement of safe voyages and guns were fired in welcome or farewell salute as the ships arrived or left these waters. Today, the church tells no stories of the Nestorians, Portuguese or Armenians. Instead, on one side is a convent, on another a well-kept cemetery of the Franciscan nuns who died on the Mount, the first tombstone dating to 1918. Courting couples sits on the low wall surrounding the summit and the loudspeakers that mar the lines of a church of rather minimalistic design blare music that varies with the parish priest. But enter the usually empty church – and there’s a peace and calm echoing that of the cave at Little Mount, a serenity that seems to shut out the city.
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1. This article appeared in The Hindu, Chennai, on 7 January 2004. It is available online at The Mount of Thomas.
2. © The Hindu. The reproduction of this article constitutes “fair use” under Indian and USA copyright conventions. It is reproduced here to facilitate the following rejoinder called Chennai’s Own Holocaust Deniers.