On a Christian trail of St Thomas apostle
St Thomas Mount, Little Mount and Santhome Basilica give a glimpse into the city’s religious past
CHENNAI: The city’s connection with saints of different religions, faiths and beliefs is strong. But there is one who travelled beyond the Roman empire, and reached the ancient ‘Tamilakam’, preached, baptised several people and found the sect of ‘Thomas Christians’ or Nazranis — Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus. To understand Chennai’s strong Christian connection and trace the life of ‘Thoma’, Savera’s official travel wing, Wanderlust travel lounge, organised a half-day tour to three sites associated with the apostle who landed in India in 52CE — The St Thomas Mount, Little Mount and Santhome Basilica.
We were first led to St Thomas Mount (Parangimalai) by Shylaja Chetlur, founder, Wanderlust and director Naga, known for his TV series Marmadesam and Chidambaram Rahasiyam. “When I began working on a project, closely related to the saint, I discovered that it’s fascinating to look into the Christian tradition of the city that dates back to almost 2,000 years,” said Naga.
A flight of about 135-160 steps led us to the top of the mount where a ‘bleeding’ cross carved by St Thomas, and what’s believed to be a finger bone relic of the apostle are preserved till date. “He is said to have been martyred while praying in front of this cross. It’s called the sprouting cross, and the corners are curved up. This is a symbol of resurrection and hope,” shared Naga.
Our next stop, Little Mount (Chinnamalai) in Saidapet, is famous for the cave where Thomas is believed to have lived and preached, before he escaped his assailants through a small tunnel/opening within it. “There are palm and foot print marks of the saint near this opening. Everyone who comes inside the cave puts their palm and foot on the very same location. So, it’s hard to say if actual evidences are being distorted or not,” shared Shylaja.
An ‘eternal’ freshwater spring which supposedly appeared miraculously, a church built by the Portuguese in 1551 AD, one masonry cross and Portuguese inscriptions etc, make this place significant to both heritage enthusiasts and believers. “Similar to the bleeding/sweating cross in St Thomas Mount, the Little Mount also boasts of a cross that’s said to sweat and bleed,” she added.
St Thomas is believed to have been killed atop Parangimalai with a lance and his mortal remains were buried in the location over which the present day San Thome Basilica stands tall. As we head to the breathtaking structure, we see a neo-gothic design, stained-glass murals, portraits and embellished facades inside, all that make it one of the popular tourist attractions in the city.
“A church was built on top of the tomb by the Portuguese in 1523. But, in 1893, it was demolished and a new one was built,” shared Naga, pointing to the pictures of the old cathedral in the museum within the premises. The lance that killed Thomas (found in St Thomas Mount), stones, earthenware and other relics excavated from the site of burial are also part of the collection.
While several stories, legends and myths shroud the life of Thomas, one that stands as witness is a ship masthead, behind the church. “When a ship was stranded in the sea, Thomas is said to have guided the sailors to the very spot where the masthead is now located. Some claim that it was washed ashore after the tsunami, but the masthead has always been here. Since there is no concrete evidence, it’s hard to confirm or dismiss these stories,” added Naga.