In praise of St Thomas

Gods and be­liefs col­lide in south­ern In­dia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KATE JAMES

CHRIS­TIANS have lived in Chen­nai [ in the state of Tamil Nadu] for a long time, and leg­end has it that one of the very first Chris­tians died there.

In the weeks af­ter the deaths of [Aus­tralian mis­sion­ary] Gra­ham Staines and his boys [in 1999], I heard a lot of Aus­tralians say that Chris­tian­ity was alien and for­eign in In­dia, a re­cent Western im­port, and ev­ery time I read an ar­ti­cle or heard an aca­demic opin­ing on the ra­dio I thought about the Saint Thomas Chris­tians.

Known also as Nas­ra­nis, these Chris­tians have been a dis­tinct eth­nic and re­li­gious group in south In­dia for al­most 2000 years and are said to have orig­i­nally been con­verted by the apos­tle Thomas.

They re­tained a Hindu-style caste sys­tem, and high-born fam­i­lies to­day still claim that their an­ces­tors were bap­tised by the apos­tle. For a long time his­to­ri­ans thought the leg­end was just that, though they couldn’t deny the ex­is­tence of a long-es­tab­lished and dis­tinc­tively In­dian form of Chris­tian­ity in the south.

But the Saint Thomas story isn’t nec­es­sar­ily un­true: trade be­tween the Mid­dle East and the Mal­abar Coast flour­ished in the first cen­tury AD, and Ro­man coins from the era have been found along that coast. In 2002, writer Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple in­ves­ti­gated the leg­end for the BBC and suc­cess­fully recre­ated the jour­ney across the Ara­bian Sea in a fish­ing boat.

Thomas is said to have landed in Ker­ala, on the south­west coast, where he lived and preached. He is then sup­posed to have crossed the coun­try to the Coro­man­del Coast and lived in the re­gion of Chen­nai. This is where he fell foul of lo­cal Brah­mins, who thought Chris­tian­ity threat­ened the caste sys­tem, and he was killed on a moun­tain­top out­side town, stabbed to death with a lance.

Grow­ing up in evan­gel­i­cal cir­cles, I didn’t hear any­thing about the apos­tle Thomas’s trav­els, but I heard lots of ser­mons about his doubt (‘‘ Don’t be a doubt­ing Thomas; rest fully on His prom­ise,’’ we sang in Sun­day school.)

In the Gospel of John, Thomas says he won’t be­lieve Je­sus has risen from the dead un­til he, Thomas, sticks his fin­ger in the nail- holes in Je­sus’ hands. He wants some ev­i­dence. And Je­sus says, ‘‘Fair enough’’, and pretty much waltzes in and shows him his hands and says, ‘‘That good enough for ya?’’ and Thomas says, ‘‘Fair cop.’’ (Ac­tu­ally, he says ‘‘My Lord’’ and ‘‘My God’’.)

Be­cause of the le­gends, many sites around Chen­nai have pur­ported links to Saint Thomas [and a] mish­mash of sto­ries, dodgy relics and su­per­sti­tions have grown up around him.

I had de­cided to do a spot of Saint Thomas tourism while I was in town. The re­cep­tion­ist at the Y called a taxi for me. The driver had a fresh pottu [paint dot] on his fore­head and a lurid Ganesh sur­rounded by fi­bre-op­tic lights on his dash­board, and he knew the Saint Thomas sites well.

He said he would take me first to Chin­na­malai, a hillock where Thomas is said to have lived in a cave and preached to the lo­cals. A se­ries of churches and chapels has been built there over the years, but the cave is still a cave.

We drove through a non­de­script neigh­bour­hood and down a side street be­tween some houses, and there was Chin­na­malai. The name means lit­tle mount, and it re­ally is lit­tle: not so much a mount as a slightly raised mound with low walls around it.

I climbed the few stairs past brightly painted life-sized statues of saints out­side a new-look­ing chapel. I was sur­prised at just how re­cently con­structed ev­ery­thing ap­peared, but when I looked at the ground I saw 17th- cen­tury tomb­stones set into the con­crete and ex­posed to the weather, one bear­ing Por­tuguese text and topped with a crude skull and cross­bones.

A bearded old man with thick glasses and no teeth pointed meto the smaller chapel, which houses the en­trance to Thomas’s cave. I made my way past more gaudy stat­u­ary and squeezed through a gap in the rock. It wasn’t easy; I had to suck in my stom­ach, and when I got in­side the cave I couldn’t quite stand up, and I started to feel my heart beat faster.

I al­ways for­get my ten­dency to­wards claus­tro­pho­bia un­til I’m in these sit­u­a­tions. The last time I’d felt like this was in Turkey, on a tour of an un­der­ground city in Cap­pado­cia, where I’d started to shake and had to make a break for the wob­bly stair­case.

This is just a cave, but all the sur­faces are shiny; gen­er­a­tions of pil­grims must have run their fin­gers rev­er­ently over the rocks. A wiry young woman was chant­ing at an al­tar, and she turned and fixed me with her glit­ter­ing eye. She spoke no English, but she showed me the sup­posed sa­cred foot­prints and hand­prints, and rocks where Thomas prayed.

She touched each spot and then kissed her fin­gers, then in­di­cated that I should do the same. She didn’t seem the type to put up with dis­obe­di­ence, so I vaguely waved my fin­gers near my lips and hoped I wouldn’t catch pil­grim flu.

Af­ter we did the rounds of the ex­tra-sa­cred patches of cave wall, my guide looked lov­ingly at me and gave me a big hug, as if I were her sis­ter, as if we had made a won­der­ful con­nec­tion in our shared love of Saint Thomas.

Then she ges­tured to the of­fer­ing box. These are ev­ery­where at the Saint Thomas sites, I dis­cov­ered, re­mind­ing meof noth­ing so much as Bud­dhist tem­ples I’ve vis­ited in China. I felt a bit flus­tered, as much by claus­tro­pho­bia as re­li­gious pres­sure, and put a 50 ru­pee note in the box ( and in­stantly re­gret­ted it).

I turned to head out of the cave, but my sis­ter took my arm, made the univer­sal hand sym­bol for money and pointed to her­self, so I gri­maced and handed over an­other note. She tucked it into her sari blouse, and as I squeezed out I could hear her chant­ing again. This is an edited ex­tract from When Gods Col­lide by Kate James (Hardie Grant, $29.95).

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