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by Margaret Deefholts
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

I am standing in a cramped, musty cave. The gloom is pierced by a shaft of sunlight filtering through a narrow aperture at one end of the cave, and the ray rests on what looks like a large rough handprint on the rock floor. I try to imagine a man living here, almost two thousand years ago: a fugitive in hiding from enemies who are seeking to kill him because his miraculous healing powers have converted large numbers of the local populace to his faith. He speaks of a strange new religion whose leader was crucified because of his radical religious teachings.

If I am to believe the inscriptions in the chapel built above the cave, this was once the abode of St. Thomas, the Apostle – the “Doubting Thomas” of the Gospels – whose handprint on the rock floor has endured through the centuries.

The split in the rock face was his escape route as he fled his murderous pursuers, scrambling his way through tropical undergrowth to a rocky hillock approximately two miles away from the cave, where he fell to the ground in exhaustion—and where he was finally stabbed to death. The site of his martyrdom is marked by a church built on the hill which now bears his name, “St. Thomas’s Mount”.

Documentary evidence indicates that active trading between the Middle East and the Malabar Coast of India was in existence as far back as the first century, B.C. Although no verifiable records attest to his arrival on the shores of India, today’s Malabar Christians of Kerala staunchly insist that their community was founded by the St. Thomas the Apostle in 56 AD.

After spending ten years on the Malabar Coast, he is said to have then travelled eastwards, across the Deccan plateau, arriving in Mylapore (near Chennai) in 68 AD. The cave at “Little Mount” was where he preached and lived in hiding until 72 AD.

The original altar in the Chapel (built over the cave) was consecrated in 1551, but close by is a newer circular church building, erected in 1971 in commemoration of the 19th centenary of the Apostle’s martyrdom. Along the flank of Little Mount are several tableaux, notably one depicting a Jesus-like figure preaching to a conglomeration of Hindu Brahmin priests and sari-clad women, an arguably patronizing display of Christian missionary zeal. A marble Pieta further up the hillside, although chipped by time and weather, is a singularly lovely work of art.

Up the hill, behind the Chapel is a flat rock, where St. Thomas is said to have preached the gospel, and a guide ushers me into a concrete structure built over the original rock-altar. He points out a thin stream running through a crack in the rock-face. “This is a miraculous spring,” he asserts. “The spring has curative powers and many believers still visit the shrine to partake of its healing properties.” The water looks anything but medicinal, and while admiring the faith of St. Thomas’ followers, I decline my guide’s offer to “take a sip”.

Here, too, is a hump of rock, which is purported to bear the footprint of St. Thomas. If so, it is distorted beyond recognition, and my credibility is further strained by the fact that unless St. Thomas was twenty feet tall, no footprint could possibly be that size. My guide is unfazed. “The rock has expanded to three times its original dimensions due to the heat beating down on it for centuries,” he says.

Much larger than the buildings at “Little Mount” is the Our Lady of Expectation Church at St. Thomas Mount, built by the Portuguese in 1547 to mark the spot where St. Thomas was killed in AD 72. A piece of bone, unearthed while excavating the foundations, reinforced the belief that this was indeed the site of the Apostle’s martyrdom, and the relic is now enshrined within the base of a cross set near the altar. Among other treasures housed in the Church is a depiction of the Virgin Mary, one of seven paintings attributed to St. Luke which, according to its inscription, was brought to India by St. Thomas.

On my way out of the Church, I pause to watch a young Indian couple light a candle at the side of the altar. Their faces are rapt. Unlike “Doubting Thomas” two millennia earlier, and myself today, they have no need to probe below the flesh of legend and feel the bone of fact. They merely believe. And perhaps that’s all that really counts.

. ________________________________


Little Mount, known locally as Chinnamalai, lies about 6 miles southeast of Chennai’s city centre.

St. Thomas Mount “Our Lady of Expectation” Church is on a hillock about 8 miles south west of Chennai, and its 134 steps are flanked by statues depicting the Stations of the Cross. For less energetic visitors like me, a motor road provides easier accessibility. Local buses from the city centre run on a regular basis to both sites.

A third shrine, which I didn’t get around to visiting, is San Thome Cathedral in Mylapore which enshrines the tomb of the Apostle.

PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts unless otherwise indicated

1. Our Lady of Health Chapel at Little Mount, built over the cave where St. Thomas took refuge and preached the gospel.

2. Entrance to the cave at Little Mount (photo: Megarajan)

3. Chapel in the cave at Little Mount (photo: Megarajan)

4. Our Lady of Expectation Church which marks the spot where St. Thomas was martyred.

5. Cross at Our Lady of Expectation Church where a relic (bone) of St. Thomas is enshrined

6. Altar containing the “bleeding cross”, at Our Lady of Expectation Church

7. Gold leaf embossed pulpit at Our Lady of Expectation Church, with an unusual mermaid figure on one panel.

8. A devout couple lighting a candle at Our Lady of Expectation Church.

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