In praise of St Thomas
Gods and beliefs collide in southern India
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).