I jump off the bus in the coastal Kerala town of Kodungallur. As far as I can make out I’m the only tourist here, which is a relief considering how Kerala tends to be overrun with backpackers and rich foreigners in search of ayurvedic rejuvenation. But I am soon to learn that thousands of years ago Kodungallur was as infested with foreigners as any beach resort is today.
Walking past the typical small-town businesses — laminators and pharmacies, a biriyani joint called City Restaurant, an Internet café offering ‘100% Job Oriented Computer Courses’, the Sitara Beauty Collection that sells gift items, the Cranganore Muziris Bakery, and showrooms for Sansui and Sony home entertainment products — I sense an overall vibe of comfort. A neat little town.
It’s a little hard to believe, but this humble municipality was once a royal capital of the mighty Chera kings, who were very welcoming to people from the West. Even though the Chera dynasty lent their name to the modern State, Kerala, there are no remains of their palace except a jungly compound known as Cheraman Parambu to the east of town. A rickshaw driver offers to take me there and the place is so tucked away that he has to stop and ask for directions time and again.
I’ve read archaeological descriptions of the spacious palaces for emperors, mansions for their ministers, shrines for their gods, and halls and theatres. Now, nothing is left. I take a walk and poke around a bit when I hear children scream at me. They make strange, swaying gestures with their hands. As I listen carefully, I make out what they’re shouting:
‘King Cobra! Watch out! King Cobra!’
Scrambling off and stage-diving into the waiting rickshaw, I consider the astonishing fact (once I’ve caught my breath, that is) that there is still a ‘king’ living in the compound.
Having paid my respects to the kings of yore, I move on to explore other sights: a mosque, a temple and a church. These turn out to be pretty modern structures, but their traditions go way back. For example, the small Cheraman Juma Masjid is said to have been founded during the prophet’s lifetime, making it one of the few mosques in the world with such an ancient pedigree. It is believed to have been converted from an abandoned Buddhist monastery gifted by a Chera king to Arab traders, possibly in return for helping make his port so prosperous. Therefore, the Cheraman mosque was named to honour the king. By 629 AD, when the original mosque was inaugurated, this had been a vital harbour for hundreds of years.
While modern Kodungallur barely warrants a mention in travel guides today, it was prominently marked out on ancient European maps (such as the Peutinger Table ) and featured in Roman-era guidebooks (like Periplus of the Erythrean Sea ) under its old name Muziris. Remarkably, these sources suggest that somewhere around here stood a Roman temple hallowed to the Emperor Augustus, under whose reign the Kerala pepper trade grew so big that two Indian embassies visited Augustus’ court in the BC 20s. Of that temple, however, archaeologists have found no trace — unless it happens to be the same temple that became a Buddhist shrine and, later, the Cheraman mosque.
Another temple site of great interest is the town’s famous shakti shrine, Sri Bhagavathi Amman, a little to the south of the market — extremely ancient and linked to Kannaki, the heroine of the Tamil epic The Jewelled Anklet . After her husband was executed on trumped-up charges of theft, the faithful Kannaki tore off one breast and hurled it at Madurai, with the result that the entire city went up in flames. She then spent her last years by the river at Kodungallur, where locals started worshipping her, and this story was eventually noted down by Ilanko Atikal, a poet dating to sometime during 1-6th Century AD who either lived in, or at least visited Kodungallur. Interestingly, this epic also describes Yavanas (presumed to mean Ionians — that is, Aegean Greeks) who, in those days, lived in various south Indian cities while pursuing their global trade interests.
A remarkable painting of Kannaki, rattling her jewelled anklet accusingly over her head, hangs inside the shrine. The day I visit, the annual spring ritual is taking place and female oracles dressed in red, some sporting impressive dreadlocks, gather around to dance until they fall into trance, shaking scary scimitars. I am momentarily transported back to Kannaki’s time of heroic ladies.
Returning to my senses, I hop into another rickshaw that takes me a few kilometres away to Azhikode village and its church crowned by a silvery onion dome, Mar Thoma Shrine, which commands a stunning view over the slowly flowing Periyar river’s mouth. The shrine is very sacred as it contains a relic of Thomas the Apostle, who arrived on this very riverfront by ship in 52 AD.
A small quay marks the presumed landing spot and, who knows, this too could have been the site of the ancient Roman temple. After all, sacred spots tend to remain sacred, even if the religions of people change.
The relic on display behind bullet-proof glass is a bone fragment — a couple of inches of the ulna bone of an upper arm — perhaps the most famous arm in Christian history. Thomas was, as is well known, the apostle who doubted the resurrection until Jesus himself requested him to touch his crucifixion wounds. From there arises the common phrase ‘doubting Thomas’, meaning ‘a habitually disbelieving or suspicious person’. I sit by the shrine, sheltering from the midday heat, and wonder: Who was this Thomas, really?
Beyond doubt, he is perhaps the first Western traveller that we know of — at least by name — who came to south India. Other than that, it is often said that very little is known about the apostle’s travels, but at the souvenir stall outside the shrine I find a bulky Thomapedia in two volumes which compiles all the stories and facts about Thomas and his Indian legacy. Leafing through it, I realise that though he is known more as a revered saint than a hardy voyager, Thomas was indeed one of the most widely travelled men of his times.
The story begins about a decade or so after the crucifixion, when the 12 apostles divided the known world between them by drawing lots. Upon Thomas fell the duty to go to India, which was far outside the Roman empire.
According to reports, Thomas again felt doubtful, claiming ‘weakness of the flesh’ and blurting out: ‘How can I, a Hebrew man, go and preach among the Indians? Send me anywhere but not to India.’
His protests were to no avail, and to get him the cheapest possible transport (after all, the religion was new and didn’t command much funding yet) he was sold to an Indian merchant, possibly of the Jewish faith, called Abbanes or Habban.
Looking for a carpenter on behalf of a Gandhara king, Habban purchased Thomas for approximately ₹49,000 worth of silver (in current monetary value), and what follows for Thomas would count as quite a backpacker adventure.
Many episodes from this epic journey are tantalisingly described in Acts of Thomas , a text which isn’t part of the official Bible but which, according to the scholars writing in the Thomapedia, has enough authentic details of Indian customs — such as ladies being carried in palanquins and noblemen taking a bath before partaking dinner — for us to believe it to be at least partially true. Like all traveller’s tales tend to be.
His journey probably started, properly, from a Red Sea port, from which they sailed to Parthia, a region now in Iran. From there they crossed into today’s Pakistan, and via the Punjab Thomas travelled on Rajasthani caravan routes to the mouth of the Indus river. Subsequently, he hopped aboard a ship to approximately Mumbai, which didn’t exist in those days though two prominent ancient ports, Sopara and Kalyan, are part of suburban Mumbai. Sopara — nowadays known as Nalasopara towards the end of the suburban train line northwards — is mentioned as far back as in the Old Testament , where it is called Ophir, the port from which biblical kings imported foreign luxury goods; so Thomas very likely passed through there — especially since he would presumably have turned to the Old Testament for guidance.
Since road travel was impractical as there weren’t many back then, Thomas sailed southwards until he finally landed at the spot I’m standing at in Kerala in 52 AD, on November 21, and he’d have been roughly 50 years of age, which curiously enough is my own age as I write this.
At that time, the trading links between Kerala and Israel were old — in fact, King Solomon had even imported construction material for his temple at Jerusalem in 961 BC, more than a thousand years before Thomas’s arrival. It is thought that the first settlement of Jews in India was established in Kodungallur hundreds of years before the year 0, and so Thomas would have found accommodation in the town’s Jewish quarters. All that is left today is a stone hidden by the river’s northern bank, commemorating a batch of 400 Jewish refugees: ‘To the memory of the Knanaya Jewish-Christian ancestors who immigrated in AD 345 from Babylonia to Kodungallur. Knai Thoma their lay-leader built a town and a church dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle on the land donated by Cheraman Perumal. On the same site, about 500 metres from here now exists the ruined Portuguese fortress administered by the Kerala state department of archaeology.’
Incidentally, the leader of these Christians and Jews is said to have been a merchant prince of Edessa (in Turkey), so it appears that in the 4th Century, the congregation that Thomas had started here got a welcome boost of newcomers.
While there is no Jewish area in Kodungallur today, one does find a Jewish bazaar at Mattancherry, in Kochi, with its own grand synagogue (16th Century), which gives an idea of what Kodungallur may have been like — rows of warehouses and the air heavy with the scents of pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves and turmeric.
It is interesting to note that at a time when Europeans fed Christians to the lions in Roman arenas for public entertainment, people in Kerala were tolerant and curious enough about the new faith that Thomas brought with him, enough for him to gather many converts — especially among women.
According to the Thomapedia, the apostle was invited to stay in Kerala by Prince Kepha of the royal family. Perhaps not so surprising, after all, since ancient sources mention that the harbour abounded in ships manned by Greeks, Arabs and maybe even a sprinkling of Romans. Yes, Kodungallur was the place to be, and whatever worries Thomas may have had about being a lone Hebrew among Indians were laid to rest — there were plenty of Jews living all over Kerala, in the harbours and in the main inland trading towns, engaged in selling and money-lending. Foreign coin hoards found here and there attest to this.
Here, a floating population of alien sailors waited around for the monsoon winds to turn so they could sail back, hanging out in the inns of the town, staying up late at night, talking in strange tongues, presumably having imbibed much of the wine carried onboard. And they shopped like mad. Archaeologists have found Roman coin hoards not only in Kerala but also central Tamil Nadu, and even Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, far to the north, suggesting that this commercial network was extensive.
Recently, during excavations south of Kodungallur, in Pattanam village, parts of an ancient brick wharf with teak bollards, a wooden canoe, beads, storage jars and shards from Roman wine amphorae were unearthed. The very name Pattanam means ‘port town’ (a suffix commonly used in town names such as Kaveripattanam, at the mouth of Kaveri river in Tamil Nadu, which ancient Tamil epics mention as the native place of Kannaki, as also a prosperous Yavana trading settlement). The reason there is no harbour here today is apparently because it was destroyed in the 14th Century by an earthquake followed by a flood, and the sea trade shifted 40 km south to Kochi, which — as we know — remains a major harbour to this day.
My rickshaw rattles across the mighty bridge straddling the river’s mouth, and the driver, an elderly man whom I found to be more knowledgeable than the first driver I engaged in the morning, is so pleased to have a foreign passenger that he insists we stop by his humble house, standing among coconut trees in a village after the bridge, to enjoy a cup of coffee with his family. They’re thrilled to hear about my ‘native place’ and ask if I can get them jobs in Europe. I get a feeling that Thomas may have been greeted likewise.
This neighbourhood, or what used to be Muziris, probably wasn’t much more urbanised in Thomas’s time than it is now.
In those days in Kerala there were few proper cities with paved roads, hardly any grand royal structures of the kind our minds conjure up about ancient towns — or when filmmakers make their historic epics, for that matter. A ‘city’ was more likely a cluster of villages that had agglomerated into a semi-urban trading hub.
Apart from Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, there would have been a colony of Jews — Indianised, yet fluent in Mediterranean languages, these expatriate compatriots would have connected easily with Thomas. In fact, all the seven churches that Thomas went on to found stood in places that used to have Jewish settlements — and which today have a significant Christian population.
One of the first converts in Muziris was the local Rabbi Paul, it is said.
The houses of these Jews were likely to have been built in teakwood around the market. Apart from pepper, known as ‘India’s black gold’, and other spices, the produce in their godowns that were destined for the export market included sandalwood, ivory, muslin cloth, silk and pearls. Goods offloaded and sold locally, or transported into the interiors, were Mediterranean wines, certain condiments such as fermented Spanish fish sauce, Italian pottery and crockery, glassware and lamps, exclusive colour pigments and a variety of foreign metals, possibly including shipments of tin from as far away as Britain (which the Romans had conquered for its tin mines barely ten years before).
So the prosperous bazaars displayed all the latest foreign items — yet, whenever Thomas was invited to lavish banquets, he would only have a piece of chapatti, some salt and a mug of plain water. He’d mostly be seen fasting, perhaps to avoid dicey food that caused stomach upsets. He was the ultimate traveller who carried the bare minimum: just the clothes on his back, which he wore until they fell apart.
The Acts of Thomas describe plenty of high drama that he met with around here, including speaking serpents and dragons. His most remarkable adventure involved a criminal investigation into a murder. A young man had allegedly, in a fit of anger, chopped up his mistress with a sword. It is said that she lived at an inn and committed adultery, perhaps meaning she was a prostitute in the seedier quarters of the port. Thomas interrogated the accused man, who confessed to his crime, and then solved the case by resurrecting the lady in question, who then described hellish visions from the netherworld. Thereafter she became a good woman and many of the witnesses converted. But my rickshaw driver and his family cannot recall any such incidents hereabouts.
However, the driver does know of the (perhaps) first church that Thomas founded. He excitedly drives me to the grandiose AD 52 St Thomas Kottakavu Forane Church in North Paravur village, a pink edifice which very obviously is of quite recent construction. A wedding is in progress, so I lurk about outside in the rather large compound with its colourful statues depicting scenes out of Thomas’s life. A signboard proclaims that the third church on the site was built in 1308 AD. Until the 18th Century, a wooden cross carved by Thomas himself was kept there, but it was destroyed when the church was ransacked.
It is said that Thomas came to this place, Kottakavu, which was a Namboodiri locality and the capital of a Brahmin kingdom, during a festival and was initially stoned. The saint prayed until a thunderstorm broke out, with bolts of lightning killing priests and one elephant. The idol broke into smithereens. Confusion arose. But then Thomas asked for some water, which he blessed and sprinkled over the dead, and all of them were revived and happy to convert.
The site of the festival, a Bhadrakali temple, was converted into this church.
On the church grounds, I’m excited to find an old piece of wall, known simply as ‘Old Wall’, which could have been part of one of the earliest churches. People, noticing my interest, lead me to a stone built into the foundation of the modern church and proudly claim the writing on it to be ‘Greek’. The westward connections remain strong here, because the man who shows me the inscription says he used to live in Dubai. After earning sufficient amounts of money, he returned home and set himself up as an elephant contractor. He’s got two at the moment. Would I be interested in renting them?
“Sorry, I’ve engaged a rickshaw driver for the day, so I don’t really need two elephants,” I say.
“But maybe one?” he asks, hopefully.
Having spent years visiting Indian archaeological sites, I make the semi-educated guess that the text on the stone is in a Tamil form of Brahmi script. So even if it isn’t Greek, it could be ancient — after all, Emperor Ashoka wrote his edicts using Brahmi. However, Googling on my phone, I discover that Brahmi is indeed related to Aramaic and was introduced to India by Jewish merchants in the 8th Century BC, so the stone may well be in Thomas’s own handwriting. At that thought my knees turn to jelly.
Twenty years passed happily, during which Thomas wrote back home (not a single letter has been preserved) to the other early congregations and travelled in Kerala, building churches and installing crosses in Kollam, Niranam (possibly known to ancient Roman traders as Nelcynda) and Chayal. He may have popped over to Sri Lanka, where there is another old cross attributed to him in the ancient capital of Anuradhapura.
Some believe that he also went to China, which isn’t historically proven but not entirely impossible. However, his main base was always Kerala, where the Thomas Christian tradition is strong and local sources list a number of his miracles, including the resurrection of at least 19 dead. He may have had surgical skills, because he reattached a severed arm of one politician, and cured 330 lepers, 250 blind and some 20 dumb people. Towards the end he had 17,500 followers.
As his fame grew, another Indian king called Misdaeus or Mazdai sent an invitation in 69 AD. The name is thought to be an incorrect transcription of Vasudeva or Mahadevan, possibly a Pandyan ruler who held sway at Madurai and who controlled an important fishing port at Mylapore (today part of Chennai), which was known in Ptolemy’s seminal Geography as Maliarpha, an ‘emporium’ (trading hub). Near Mylapore, a single coin of the Roman emperor Augustus, issued in AD 14, was found in 1930, which may be what remained of Thomas’s travel budget.
Theories abound as to why Thomas went there to die. According to one story, Thomas was asked to perform an exorcism on some female members of the royal family. According to another, King Mahadevan was simply interested in philosophical debates.
Anyhow, Thomas is thought to have hitch-hiked the 500 km or so overland, travelling by highways — not today’s paved roads but simply slightly raised all-weather paths. Such trading routes crossed from Kerala, through the Ghat mountains via modern Palakkad to the plains of Kongu Nadu, where the town Karur was a major hub judging from the vast quantities of Roman coins found there. In Ptolemy’s Geography — written around 100 AD and one of the most authoritative guidebooks of its time — the town is named Korur. (Incidentally, even Columbus relied on Ptolemy’s Geography when he tried to find India but erroneously bumped into America.)
While I take a train via Palakkad (where I break journey to see an old fort, but am unable to find any traces of Thomas or Roman trade) to Tamil Nadu, in those days people travelled by bullock cart. There’s also a mention of Thomas riding in chariots, including one pulled by four wild asses that he charmed into volunteering for the chore. Wild asses are very rare in south India, but then again miracles happened around Thomas. I fancy that the chariot he rode in was a bit like the private minibuses of today, as the Acts of Thomas mentions both a driver and a captain (a ticket collector, I guess).
Along the way he put up at roadside inns or stayed with friendly people (including the aforementioned collector, who was appointed the priest of Mylapore after Thomas). If he passed through Karur, which is likely, it would have been possible to sail downriver to the coast near Pondicherry, where a major Roman trading post was excavated by the British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler at Arikamedu. Wheeler found a world-class wine cellar and fine Roman tableware made in Arezzo. After a break here, Thomas would have sailed up the coast to Mylapore in a few days.
What happened next is much written about and the subject of speculation through the ages.
It is a hot Madrasi day when I reach town.
Being patronised by the King, Thomas was allowed to work on the hillock that is known as Chinnamalai, or Little Mount in English, and so that is where I head first. Incidentally, it’s just off the main thoroughfare Anna Salai (old name: Mount Road) in south central Chennai. Although there are stories of Thomas being in and out of jail, he mostly seems to have lived on this rocky knoll.
At 24 metres above sea level, it’s not much of a hill, but at the summit a rambling construction of conjoined churches — at least three — are jostling for space, dwarfed by surrounding modern buildings. The oldest chapel, whitewashed and with decorative blue trimmings, is the quaint Shrine of Our Lady of Health built in 1551 AD. Now the most astonishing thing is that Thomas’s tiny private cave has been preserved more or less intact underneath this chapel, and I climb down into it with some difficulty after squeezing my potbelly through a crevice behind the altar, down some half a dozen steps, past a Thomas-style cross carved into the wall.
How do I know this is the right cave? Well, there’s an archaic marble plaque on the wall, reading: ‘THE CAVE Where lay hid Persecuted just before being martyred By Rajah Mahadevan King of Mylapuram AD 68, THOMAS.’
So the killer’s name is on record, written in stone. Wikipedia, too, confirms this is where Thomas “led a spartan prayerful life in solitude, often praying on top of the hill and preaching to the local crowds”. Furthermore, the helpful watchman, whom I tip a hundred bucks, points out to me elbow imprints on a rock surface where the saint used to pray ardently and then a hand-print on the cave wall near a small ‘window’ shaft, through which the apostle is believed to have escaped when the King sent soldiers to arrest him.
He must have been very thin from his staple diet of bread and water but there’s no way I can squeeze through.
This is the one place, I muse, that gives an idea of the kind of accommodation a traveller may have been faced with in those days — cheap to maintain, probably no rent, four by five metres square, barely space enough to snap a selfie. However, the cave protected him from the monsoon showers, and the narrow air shaft provides reading light in the daytime.
Although the Acts of Thomas , written more than a hundred years later in distant Edessa, claims that a follower arranged a triclinium, a kind of Roman hall with dining couches, for Thomas to teach in, local tradition holds that he taught in the open, behind the present church, where there’s now an assemblage of colourful statues of him, Indian devotees of many kinds and a curiously Roman-looking soldier. Every Sunday he addressed whoever wanted to listen to him. I also find a cross Thomas personally carved into the rock, next to a miraculous perennial spring that he used to drink from. There’s a sign that proclaims: ‘Water from the fountain cures diseases.’ I take a sip and feel invigorated.
“He was hiding there and needed water, so at that time he made the well,” explains a devotee to me.
Despite the evidence on the marble plaque, it remains unclear to me who and what caused his death. Reading the Acts of Thomas , one gets the feeling that local women found the exotic stranger irresistible and so the philosophy he propagated had a powerful effect on them, which angered many gentlemen. Why? Well, one particular lady, Mygdonia (thought to be a misspelling of Mangaladevi), who was the wife of the aristocrat Charisius (or Krishna), got so affected that she not only refused her conjugal obligations but went sleepwalking, naked, to look for Thomas in the Mylapore bazaars. The following day Krishna lodged a complaint with the King against ‘a certain Hebrew, a sorcerer’ for driving his wife mad and ruining his peaceful home life. Meanwhile, Queen Tertia (or Tharika), herself had a heart-to-heart chat with Mangaladevi, and was influenced to stop travelling by palanquin, to live in celibacy and start exercise walking, which wasn’t at all what her husband, King Mahadevan, had in mind when he invited the saint to town — so he initiated action against Thomas.
Summoning him to the royal court, the King commanded of Thomas, “Tell me who thou art and by what power thou doest these things.” Thomas stayed silent and so, for starters, he received 128 blows from the royal officers, before being thrown into jail. In the night, Mangaladevi came with 10 Roman denarii to bribe the jailers, but on the way she met Thomas, who was already out, with an eerie light moving ahead of him. However, not much later, the King “delivered him unto four soldiers and an officer, and commanded them to take him to the mountain and there pierce him with spears and put an end to him.”
Around Little Mount, as I carry out my forensic investigation, I spot a fenced-in footprint left by Thomas, not far outside the ‘window’ shaft, possibly from when he was chased by the soldiers. Some 5 km away in the same direction, to the south of the Adyar river, there’s another, somewhat bigger mountain which Thomas may have tried to escape to.
I trace the route down to the fag end of Anna Salai, past a TASMAC liquor shop and on to the Tiruchi-Chennai Highway, across Guindy Flyover to a massive highway knot called Kathipara Junction. From there, Poonamalle High Road leads to the Tamil Wesley Church (and a host of other churches) and St Thomas Higher Secondary School (another clue that I am on the right track) until I, finally, after many twists and turns on increasingly narrower roads, stand at the foot of Parangimalai, a name the hill acquired because so many ‘phirangs’ or ‘parangi’ came to worship. It is only about three times the height of Little Mount, but the 135 or so steps up the hill, which in English is known as Saint Thomas Mount, take plenty of energy and electrolytes out of me. But from the top, the view over the surrounding city is stunning. Chennai stretches as far as the horizon on one side, and to the sea on another. This vast landscape, then dotted by villages, was to be the last sight Thomas ever saw. It was July 3 in 72 AD — according to my sources.
Today at the summit stands the picturesque Shrine of Our Lady of Expectation, built by the Portuguese in the early 16th Century on the site of a ruined Christian monastery, once populated by hermits.
There is a painting of the murder on one wall and near the altar is an important oil painting: it depicts Virgin Mary and is believed to be by the hand of Saint Luke, a fellow apostle. Thomas carried it with him to India, it is believed, making it possibly the oldest Christian artwork in Asia.
I also find a stone cross, unearthed when the Portuguese poked around in the monastery ruins. It bore fresh bloodstains, so it was thought to be the actual cross to which the apostle clung as he died. It went on bleeding well into the 18th Century, though I notice it is dry today. However, experts who examined it in the 1920s ascribed it to the 7th Century, so much younger than Thomas; others point out that it might be older than that, as its inscriptions in fact use the Sassanian Pahlavi alphabet belonging to ancient Persia.
After being allowed to pray before this cross, or some other cross like it, Thomas was, according to one version, struck to death, according to another pierced by no fewer than four lances, and according to a third, stabbed by a priest with a sword. In a fourth version, King Mahadevan isn’t at all involved in the murder, but is instead the one who comes to the rescue and finds Thomas here, bleeding. A small booklet I pick up at the souvenir stall reports Thomas’s last words to the King, probably spoken in a Dravidian tongue:
‘Be strong in your faith, cherish it like your finest treasure.’
Looking around for more clues, I come across a signboard that says the martyr was awarded a royal funeral on Marina Beach by King Mahadevan and his son Prince Vijayan.
As I leave the church, my feet are sore and it is 9 km to Marina Beach, but luckily I find a taxi waiting for passengers.
Joseph is the driver’s name and his helpfulness reminds me of the ticket collector Thomas befriended during his journey to Mylapore. Joseph tells me he grew up in an orphanage and has no clue where his family might live, or even if they live. He is a Std VII pass and started working as an agricultural labourer at 11, but despite that he taught himself five languages from books — apart from his native Tamil, he is fluent in Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, Hindi and English. At 14 he started working as a rickshaw driver, but thanks to his language skills he has been promoted to drive a taxi. He had a love marriage with a Muslim woman. He is very fond of Saint Thomas.
As we drive through town he tells me how Thomas met a pujari and saw him throw water in the air as an offering. Thomas asked, “How do you pray to a God to accept your water when it just falls down again?”
Then Thomas threw water and it stayed in the air, Joseph explains, and so the pujari converted. (I later discover that there is a similar legend in the Kerala traditions.) This angered the other priests so much that they plotted to have him killed, says Joseph.
“How did they kill him?” I ask.
“Don’t know exactly, but they were very angry.”
After negotiating a long Mylapore bazaar street we reach a stately whitewashed edifice at Santhome, at the southern end of Chennai’s long urban beach. Joseph claims it is one of the earliest basilicas in the whole world; the very first being the one built over Saint Peter’s tomb in Rome, while this is the third.
Proudly, Joseph also informs me that the Pope himself came here to pay his respects in 1986; there’s a statue of him in the courtyard to prove it.
This is a popular place among beggars peculiarly well-versed in English. As soon as I get out of the taxi, one fellow walks up and points to a missing leg:
“I happened to have an accident on my way here. Now I need to go to hospital. Can you help me?”
I chip in.
So here is where Thomas’s journey ended, on the beach of the Bay of Bengal. At some point a chapel was built to mark the location. That would have been the same chapel Marco Polo visited in 1293, and the story he heard then was that Thomas died by accident: a hunter mistook the saint for a peacock and put an arrow in him. At that time Mylapore was a “little town having no great population, it is a place where few traders go, because there is very little merchandise to be got there, and it is a place not very accessible”. But, points out Polo, it was an important place of pilgrimage, which suggests that the location of the grave had not been forgotten. The red sand around the tomb healed fevers.
It is dusk and a strong breeze blows in from the sea. “And all the brethren wept; and they brought beautiful robes and much fair linen, and buried him in a royal sepulchre,” it says in Acts of Thomas . Archaeological excavations in the 20th Century confirmed that underneath the present basilica lay remains of brick lining vaguely similar to the bricks used at the Roman trading post in Arikamedu, so the sepulchre may have been built in the 1st Century. A capital of an ancient column, thought to be of late Greco-Indian style, perhaps from Kashmir, was also found.
Earlier the tomb, a small sandy pit by the altar, used to be viewed from above through foggy plate glass, but this view has been blocked. Now there is a proper, modern well-lit crypt one can go down into under the church (entered from the building behind it) where a symbolic tomb has been set up, including a life-sized resting Saint Thomas. Next to it is a glass receptacle labelled ‘Relic es ossia St Thomas Ap’, which contains a bone fragment.
The murder weapon — or rather, a very small piece of the ‘lancehead that killed St Thomas’, dug up by the Portuguese here in 1523 AD — is on display in the adjacent museum, and finally I know for sure how Thomas died. At the souvenir counter I pick up a credit card-sized memento that contains a few grains of sand from the tomb, sand that soaked up the saint’s blood. And so, it can be said, the apostle’s travels continue with everybody who takes some of that sand with them.
Zac O’Yeahis a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist based in Bengaluru