Madras Musings And Madras Muthiah – Ishwar Sharan

Madras had two major English-language dailies in 1992, The Hindu and Indian Express, and a growing number of special interest community journals.[1] The best known of these small publications is Madras Musings, a Catholic-owned fortnightly published by Anu Varghese and edited by S. Muthiah. Muthiah is a Sri Lanka-returned journalist who is described in an Indian Express article as talented and multi-faceted. He is certainly these―and more as will be seen. He is also reportedly multi-religious, though only the Christian side of his faith shows. He is a committed and subtle promoter of the St. Thomas fable, which he repeats at length in his books Madras Discovered, Madras Rediscovered and Madras that is Chennai, and a zealous patron of Chennai’s Portuguese churches.[2]

We did not know any of these wonderful things when we sent him a copy of the first edition of this book for review. Madras Musings reviewed books then―early 1992―and had the motto “We care for Madras” blazoned across its masthead, and we thought―rather naively we would soon learn―that knowing about Madras was also caring for it.

Sometime later, in the May 1-15 issue, a prominent, boxed, front page editorial appeared in the paper. It was obviously written by Muthiah himself though it appeared with the by-line “Staff Reporter”. It was called “Looking back―for action tomorrow” and read:

In all the excitement to draw up plans to make a heritage zone of Mylapore-San Thome, only one thing is certain. And that is that the area, ancient Mylapore, which was pushed far from shore by the Portuguese after 1522 to create San Thome, and the new Mylapore, that developed where it is today through the efforts of the Vijayanagar “governors” of this part of Tondaimandalam, has the strongest historical reasons for conservation efforts to be spent on it.

Tamil tradition has Mylapore as over 2500 years old. Thiruvalluvar, it is said, lived and sang here. Christian tradition, as much an article of faith, has Thomas who Doubted, the Apostle of India, living and preaching in this part of the Coromandel from about 65 AD till his death in 72 AD. Today, there is much associated with that legend that survives between the Mylapore beach and the Mount of St. Thomas.

Ptolemy the Greek geographer wrote of the great port of Maillarpha about 140 AD. From the 6th to the 8th centuries, this was the chief port of the Pallavas of Kanchi and it was from here that the culture of India first spread to the lands of the east. It was to this great port that the Arabs and the Nestorians and Marco Polo came at different times, from the Pallava period to the 13th century. And it is Maila and Meilan and Mirapor they all also called Betumah, “The Town of Thomas”.[3]

After the Pallavas, the prosperity of Mylapore declined and it was little more than a small town when the Portuguese established their settlement in its place and pushed it back from the shore.[4] But of it Camoens, the author of the national epic of the Portuguese The Lusiads (1572), sang:

Here rose the potent city Meliapor
Named, in olden time rich, vast and grand….

A lineage as ancient as that, a town associated with Thiruvalluvar and Thomas, the Pallavas and the Portuguese, certainly deserves its heritage protected. But to find common consent of what that heritage is and all of what it should encompass will be the first hurdle to be crossed in any plan to “save” Mylapore.

Unfortunately, try as he might, Muthiah does not have a facet among his multi-facets that reflects any real feeling for a Mylapore other than the one the paranghi priests and pirates colonised and sang about in Lisbon. We replied to this editorial in Madras Musings on May 5th:

The legend of St. Thomas coming to Mylapore may be an article of faith for some Christian communities in India. It is not an article of faith for Rome and the unedifying fable is no longer taught in Catholic universities in Europe and America. Nor was it an article of faith for Bishop Stephen Neill, himself a man of faith, when he, in his authoritative History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to 1707 A.D., lamented the spread of this spurious history about St. Thomas among Indians.[5]

Equally important if not more so, the myth of St. Thomas is not an article of faith for the majority of citizens of Mylapore and Madras. It represents for them the destruction of the great Shiva temple on the Mylapore beach and the denigration of their religion by the Portuguese and the Roman Catholic Church. How can these citizens be expected to sympathise with the sordid heritage that San Thome represents? How can they be asked to assist with the preservation of the monuments that represent the success of this vicious attack on their faith?

This letter was not published of course, and in retrospect it is not reasonable to insist that it should have been. Madras Musings is a Catholic newspaper―for all of its non-sectarian face―and if The Hindu and Indian Express will not allow the truth about Mylapore to be told, we can hardly expect S. Muthiah and his fortnightly to be more honest.

1. There are four major English-language newspapers in Chennai (Madras) in 2018: The Hindu, The New Indian Express, The Times of India, and Deccan Chronicle. All these papers are “secular”, Christian-sympathetic broadsheets that hold the civilizational root dharma culture of India, called Hinduism, as “mythological” and “superstitious” and worthy only of their editorial contempt. Very occasionally these newspapers will give an inch in their letters column for an offended Hindu to protest or dissent.

2. See the reference to S. Muthiah in Chapter 19 of this book.

3. Only the Syrians identified Betumah with Mylapore. The Arabs said it was east of Cape Comorin, probably in Sumatra, and Gerini, in Researches on Ptolemy’s Geography of East Asia, says it is east of Singapore. There is also no agreement among scholars as to the meaning of the word Betumah. On this point as on others, S. Muthiah, like Nanditha Krishna in The Hindu, is simply trying to pass off one version or another of the St. Thomas fable as history.

4. All evidence points to Mylapore being a flourishing and wealthy Hindu pilgrimage city until the Portuguese destroyed it in the sixteenth century. S. Muthiah is following the Portuguese accounts here, which were specifically written to cover up the great destruction of the city after 1520.

5. The question of whether or not the St. Thomas legend is really an article of faith for Christians is discussed in Chapter 19 of this book.