We go to Chennai every few months for materials or services that are not available in Tiruvannamalai. We have not seen much of the city, though. It is such a big effort to get there and back, and the traffic is so bad in Chennai, that we have not taken much time to stop and see the sights of the city.
On a recent trip, however, we took a short detour on our drive out of town to stop by St. Thomas Mount . We took a few photos so we could show this place to you.
St. Thomas Mount is a small hillock in what is now Chennai. It is believed that St. Thomas died here in 72 AD, perhaps murdered by Brahmins, who, apparently, were not open-minded about a new faith.
The story of Thomas in India is mainly told by the St. Thomas Christians, the Indian Christians who hold Thomas as their founder. Their stories tell of his coming to Kerala in 52 AD, and founding a number of churches there. The tradition of Thomas is strong in Kerala, where almost every village has a Thomas statue and shrine. According to www.srite.de, an international organization devoted to the preservation of the manuscripts of these ancient Indian Christians, he founded his church here with a miracle:
According to this tradition, the Apostle arrived there and found several nambudhiri Brahmins (that is, Kerala Brahmins) bathing in a tank and throwing up handfuls of water as an offering to their sun-god. He asked them whether they were able to throw the water up so that it could stay suspended in the air without falling back down, as a proof that their god had accepted it. The Brahmins replied this was impossible; the Apostle performed a miracle and the water remained in the air, proving that Christ had accepted the offering. This convinced the Brahmins, who accepted baptism from the Apostle in the same tank. Their temple was transformed into a Christian church.
Below is a drawing (from www.pakalomattamfamily.org) of this. Note that the organization whose web page I took the pic from says that it is the “first Christian family in India.” These are then the descendants of these very same Brahmins.
These same legends tell of his trip to what is now Chennai to spread the word of Jesus. And being martyred there in 72 AD. St. Thomas Mount is where this is said to have happened. All of this made the visit seem worthwhile. For me, any time I can see a site with a 2000 year history, I am interested.
More on his death (again from www.srite.de):
There are several versions of the details of the Apostle’s death, the most fantastic of which states that one day a hunter out hunting peacocks saw a group of them seated on a flat stone. He shot an arrow at the leader of the group, which was transformed into a man and fell down dead. This was the Apostle. Other accounts, emphasizing the point that Saint Thomas died a martyr’s death, speak about furious Brahmins who pierced the Apostle with a lance, either when he was praying in rapture in a cave or when he destroyed, by means of his cross, a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali.
The tale about Thomas’ death due to the peacock hunting accident was reported back to Europe by Marco Polo in the 1200s. The fog of ancient history shrouds what actually happened. What remains are tales from different eras, based on a variety of old stories, told by different groups.
Here are the steps leading up to Mount St. Thomas.
We are greeted by an angel.
At the entrance we see the main church, with a big 1551 AD sign on its steeple. (I would note that, like everything else about St. Thomas in India, the actual dates of the founding of this church are uncertain, though historians think it certainly is from that era.)
St. Peter greets us as we enter near the church.
A sign commemorates this site and says that this place is where St. Thomas the Apostle of India prayed, contemplated, preached and was martyred.
Mother Mary is revered here. St. Thomas is said to have had a special relationship with Mary. From Wikipedia:
According to The Passing of Mary, a text attributed to Joseph of Arimathaea, Thomas was the only witness of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The other apostles were miraculously transported to Jerusalem to witness her death. Thomas was left in India, but after her first burial, he was transported to her tomb, where he witnessed her bodily assumption into heaven.
Next to the church, there is another shrine building. The guard at the site motioned us to go into this building first. The sign identifies this place as the cave of St. Thomas.
There is a big altar in the building and a dark doorway to its left.
The doorway enters St. Thomas’ cave, where he is said to have prayed and contemplated (meditated). Maybe he lived here, too.
There are several features said to have been left in the cave by Thomas. In the photo below, I kneel and pray, my elbows in depressions in the rock said to have been made by Thomas.
An altar with his icon is the focus of the cave.
There is an opening in the wall letting in light from the outside. There is an impression of a hand said to be that of Thomas. Carol is encouraged to put her hand there.
The sign says “finger print of St. Thomas.”
Carol and I both pray at the shrine above the cave. (The attendant urged us to do this, and took our camera so he could take this photo. He knows what most Western visitors want.)
There is an old stone carving in the wall of the shrine. Can anyone tell what it says?
There also is this sculpture of what is surely meant to be the dead St. Thomas. The protective glass has been marked all over with graffiti.
As we left the cave shrine we noticed a sadhu had come here to pray. In India there are all these cross-cultural things that you see.
Next we walked around the grounds. The sign points out attractions.
St Thomas. A standard image has him holding some kind of stick. I am sure there is a story about this, but don’t know it.
Among the statuary is this fantastic bird, maybe it is meant to be something like a Phoenix. I think it looks like a fire-breathing chicken.
Some of the preceding photos were taken by the guard who showed us the inside of the cave and its features. He was really enthusiastic about taking photos, including the one below. He must frequently encounter Western visitors who are given to taking their picture in front of all the important scenes. It became a bit of a problem for us, however, when we saw something we wanted to photograph but the guard had taken our camera to make his own art shots!
I think this is St. Thomas preaching on the Mount. I notice statues of peacocks in the background. Well, one of the stories about his death is that there was a peacock hunter whose arrow pierced St. Thomas by mistake. Notice the monks with shaved heads.
This is another rock said to have lasting impressions from St. Thomas’s feet. It was difficult for us to make out the actual footprints. This is another place for veneration of the remains (impressions) of this saint and founder of this Indian church.
Below, behind protective glass, is the cross of St. Thomas, carved into the rock. It is said to be of his creation. Notice that it is lobed on each end and does not have the longer bottom piece. This is typical of the Syrian Christian cross. St. Thomas Christians are said to be a Syrian Christian sect.
From Wikipedia, this is the Syrian Cross.
And a sign explaining it.
A painting of Thomas and his cross.
We are next taken to the “Miraculous Spring,” a crack in the rocks with water in it. This is said to be healing holy water.
They drop a bucket into the water and pull it out with a rope. They offer the water to Carol.
She anoints herself with it. I drink a sip, fearfully, given all the water-borne diseases here. I guess it is holy, since I didn’t get sick.
We start to look around the grounds behind the temple. There are many figures.
Various Stations of the Cross are spread around the site.
I like this view of the statue and the Indian man sitting nearby. The statues are, as you see, bigger than life.
Being nailed to the cross. Gruesome.
Christ carrying his cross, with women praying for him as he passes.
An evil Roman guard prods Jesus to get up when he falls under the load.
Get along now! says the Roman.
Jesus is helped by men, including one of his monks (Apostles), with a bald pate.
Jesus bleeding from the crown of thorns.
The view of the church from below.
Not sure who the figures are.
We were there a bit after 11 AM on a weekday. Mass was being given. There was a good crowd attending mass.
The priest is very nicely dressed. His vestments are white and shining.
Our favorite church attendee.
Outside the church is a grotto built up of large stones.
I think it is Mother Mary inside of the grotto. There is a stone monkey to the left.
One more thing about Thomas: He is said to be the author of the “Gospel of Thomas,” which records many “sayings of Jesus.” This Gospel was excluded from the New Testament Gospels when the Bible was set in its modern form during the time of Roman emperor Constantine by the Council of Constantinople. Per the order of Constantine most copies were destroyed. This book was rediscovered in a group of books known as the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt, in December 1945. Since then it has become one of the most important Gnostic Christian scriptures, with teachings that seem very similar to those of Sri Ramana Maharshi, and speak to Self-Knowledge as the key spiritual practice. Here are examples (from The Nag Hammadi Library, The Gospel of Thomas):
3. Jesus said, "… The Father’s kingdom is within you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty."
11. Jesus said, "This heaven will pass away, and the one above it will pass away.
The dead are not alive, and the living will not die. During the days when you ate what is dead, you made it come alive. When you are in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one, you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?"
17. Jesus said, "I will give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart."
61. Jesus said, "… I say, if one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness."
67. Jesus said, "Those who know all, but are lacking in themselves, are utterly lacking."
It is ironic that the apostle whose scriptures are the closest to Hindu’s Advaita Vedanta may have been killed by Hindu Brahmins.
This was worth the stop, and it was easy to get to it on our way out of Chennai. I enjoy seeing another spot that has been a holy place for more than a thousand years. It is worth the visit.