The Thoman Myth

The Increduality of Saint Thomas21 days, 7 months and 2006 years ago to this date, was born the world’s most famous man. And the original innocent man wronged. Now, this dude, who called himself the Christ, had a few dozen (er: only one dozen) friends who hung on to his every word. Or very close to it. Of those 12, we will talk today of the man called Jude Thomas Didymus, Doubting Tom or more popularly, St. Thomas, the Apostle of India

St. Thomas' Bleeding cross
Thomas, now as the believer (he had verified, indeed, that his lord had arisen – hence the strengthening of his beliefs) travelled eastwards, via Syria, to India. He is said to have landed on the Indian peninsula on the western coast, near present day Kodungallur (and possibly the first time somebody comes to Kerala from the Arabian/Gulf region)

So anyway, Thomas allegedly went about converting the natives, and travelled the coast. From the Malabar, he comes to Coramandel, goes the myth, and finally lands in what is today’s Chennai. Thomas immediately falls in love with the beaches of Chennai, the place, the climate and the hills and the plains and the forests. (And we don’t blame him. Chennai is easy to love, and hate).
So, as the myth goes, Thomas builds himself a rudimentary dwelling in the hillock now named after him, and sets up a church to spread the message of his god, on the beach. The apostle is said to have carved a cross out of stone, with his own nails, lived in a rock-cave, and preached. There things stood, till 78 AD, when a a bunch of crazed hindu fanatics lanced Thomas and killed him (not much has changed in India, one would suppose)

That then, is the myth of St. Thomas, the Apostle of India.

It is interesting in many ways to me, that a myth, with not much to prove either ways, went a lot towards helping found the city of Madras. Even before Francis Day and Andrew Cogan leased the sandy beach for their fort, The Portuguese, the Arabs, the Nestorian Christians and more have come, searching for the relics of the martyr, founded churches and fortified cities, created and fostered self-serving myths. All based on one person and his alleged stay in this part of the world.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the southern coast of the Marina was called Betumah, by the Arabs. Alluding, once again, to St. Thomas. The Nestorians of Persia are said to have built a church atop Thomas’s hill, as well as a church.

A while before the Nestorians arrived, the Pallavas held dominion over this land. And as is their wont, went about building temples. And again, as is their custom in this part of their country, they built a temple to Shiva on the seashore.

Our Lady of Expectations In the 16th century, Portuguese sailors and missionaries arrived. In search of the true relics of the Apostle. They renovate the Nestorian church on the hill – The Church of Our Lady of Expectations, and go about founding a fortified city near where Thomas allegedly preched to the masses. Only problem, the holy land has a temple to Shiva as Kapaleswar. It is said that the Portuguese didn’t think twice about demolishing the temple. But the public prevented the temple from being damaged too much, and relocated the Kapaleswar temple to its current location in Mylapore.

And so, out of Mylapore was carved the fortified city of San Thome. And here was built the St. Thomas Basilica, over the tomb of St. Thomas, which is said to contain a relic from the martyr.

And this is where the much travelled, much abused legend of St. Thomas finally comes to rest.

Notes – the image ‘Increduality of St. Thomas is taken from Wikipedia. The image is in Public Domain
The other two photos were shot by me. My sources for history are
-> Madras Discovered by S. Muthiah.
-> – Thomas – Apostle

6 Comments so far

  1. Nandhu (unregistered) on July 22nd, 2006 @ 11:08 pm

    Nice post. why is st.thomas a mythical person? i thought only his story of coming to india is a myth. did the person himself not exist?

  2. Ravages (unregistered) on July 22nd, 2006 @ 11:11 pm

    Er – I meant of course that his coming here is a myth. Blame the lapse on sleep deprivation.


  3. Peter (unregistered) on July 23rd, 2006 @ 4:15 am

    My “Dictioanry of Saints” says that “ancient tradition” says he went to India. And since no other place, to my knowledge, claims his relics, I’m going to give the claim that whatever mortal remains are still around are in Madras/Chennai.
    (For instance, at least 2 places in France claim the remains of John the Baptist).

    Being a less-than-devout Catholic, I didn’t bother to look for a reliquary when I popped my head into the basilica (unlike my devout Hindi friends who paid their respects to St. Philomena in Mysore and were quite perplexed at my “I can’t be bothered,” attitude. I had to explain that Philomena was probably _more_ mythical than Thomas…

  4. Ravages (unregistered) on July 23rd, 2006 @ 12:09 pm

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks for the comment.
    One can never be really sure, can one, about incidents that happened way into the past.
    For instance, the account of St. Thomas’ death. Some claim hindu fanatics lanced him because he was preaching a different truth. Some say he probably caught a cold and died.
    Both scenarios seem very likely – considering India’s love of religion, and Chennai’s moist climate.


  5. Chenthil (unregistered) on July 23rd, 2006 @ 1:34 pm

    The website had arguments refuting the myth of St. Thomas’ arrival and martyrdom in Madras. It was virulent and spewed venom against Mr. S. Muthiah. Still the alternate theory should get a voice. The cache of the site is here

  6. Ravages (unregistered) on July 23rd, 2006 @ 1:49 pm

    Thanks. I agree there are many views and many opinions about St. Thomas’s visit/stay. Here’s a post I found that has photographs of the cave in Saidapet where Thomas allegedly hid.

    Chinnamalai caves

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