As Christian evangelists intensify efforts to bring India under their sway, their brethren in the south are trying to (mis)use current excavations at Pattanam to revive the myth of Apostle Thomas arriving in the country in the first century AD and establishing a fledgling community. They are trying to link the ancient port of Muziris with Pattanam, where Thomas reputedly landed, though Muziris was more logically Kodungalloor, where the river joins the sea. Dr R. Nagaswamy, former director, Tamil Nadu Archaeological Survey, debunks this mischief and avers that none of the literature on the life of St Thomas claims that he came to India.
Yet, so strenuously has the myth been perpetuated that Swami Devananda Saraswati (pen name Ishwar Sharan), a Canadian Protestant who became a Smarta Dasanani sanyasi at Prayag in 1977, decided to get to its historical roots. The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple (updated 3rd edn.), is the fruit of his labours.
Sharan was intrigued by the story of the alleged murder of the apostle by a conniving Brahmin. In September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI declared that Thomas never came to India, but Rome later fell silent after a nudge from the Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore. The myth includes the implausible conversion of Tiruvalluvar by the foreign evangelist, though Tamil scholars believe the sage lived around ca. 100 BCE, perhaps even 200 BCE.
The claim that Christianity came to India before it went to Europe is a ploy to make it a sort of native religion, even if it came from West Asia. The origin is a Gnostic Syrian fable, Acts of Thomas, written by poet Bardesanes at Edessa around 201 CE. The text never mentions or describes the sub-continent, but says the apostle went from Palestine eastwards to a desert-like country where people are ‘Mazdei’ [Zoroastrian] and have Persian names. The term India in Acts is a synonym for Asia.
The Acts identifies St Thomas as Judas, the look-alike twin of Jesus, who sells him into slavery. The slave travels to Andropolis where he makes newly-weds chaste, cheats a king, fights with Satan over a beautiful boy, persuades a talking donkey to confess the name of Jesus, and is finally executed by a Zoroastrian king for crimes against women. His body is buried on a royal mountain and later taken to Edessa, where a popular cult rises around his tomb.
One Thomas of Cana led a group of 400 Christians (from seven tribes and 72 families) from Babylon and Nineveh, out of Persia in the 4th century, when christianisation of the Roman Empire made the Persians view their Syriac-speaking Christian minority as a Roman fifth column. The ‘Thomas Christians’ could originally have referred to this merchant. They reputedly landed at Cranganore in Malabar in 345 CE. Sharan warns this migration cannot be treated as historical fact, but says that Cosmas the Alexandrian, theologian, geographer and merchant who traded with Ethiopia and Ceylon, visited Malabar in 520-525 CE and provided the first acceptable evidence of Christian communities there in Christian Topography. This Thomas was probably ‘converted’ (metamorphosed) to St Thomas.
Early Church Fathers like Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Eusebius are explicit that Apostle Thomas settled in ‘Parthia’, and established a church in Fars (Persia). This is supported by the 4th century priest Rufinus of Aquileia, who translated Greek theological texts into Latin, and the 5th century Byzantine church historian, Socrates of Constantinople, who wrote an Ecclesiastical History, the second edition of which survives and is a valuable source of early church history. Nothing much is known about St Thomas. He was called the Apostle of the East in West Asia and India until 1953, when the Church demoted him to Apostle of India, dislodging St Francis Xavier.
Between the 4th and 16th centuries, the Syrian Christians of Malabar reinvented the tale several times, finally bringing St Thomas to India to evangelize the heathen. In the 13th century, Marco Polo embellished the tale with a South Indian seashore tomb and in the 16th century the Portuguese transferred this seashore tomb to Mylapore! The created their own redactions of the Acts of Thomas and began destroying temples in the port city and building their St Thomas churches, pretending these were the sites of Thomas’ martyrdom and burial.
The primary objective of the Thomas-in-India or Jesus-in-India stories is to vilify Brahmins and malign the Hindu religion and community. The second is to present Christianity as an indigenous religion – not a piece of western imperialism. A deeper aim is to insinuate it as the ‘original’ religion of the Tamil people. Finally, it is to help Syrian Christians maintain their caste identity, their claim to be Jews or Brahmins, descendants of Namboodiris converted by St Thomas in the 1st century.
Ishwar Sharan cites a wealth of historical, textual and epigraphic material to prove how various authors and travellers like Marco Polo, mistakenly or deliberately, falsified evidence regarding St Thomas. He traces the Polo mischief to a book the legendary explorer dictated to fellow prisoner and writer, Rustichello, when he was captured by Genoa. The book became a hit in Europe, and the myth of a St Thomas tomb on a seashore was firmly planted.
German scholars, whose work remains to be translated into English, have consistently maintained that most 16th and 17th century churches in India contain temple rubble and are built on temple sites, just as in Europe they took over pagan sites. In fact, at the end of the 19th century, a landslip on San Thome beach revealed carved stone pillars and broken stones of mandapam found only in Hindu temples.
The Portuguese in the 16th century had one of their earliest settlements at San Thome, and razed many Hindu temples to the ground. Vijayanagar ruler, Rama Raya, waged war on them in Mylapore and Goa simultaneously, to save the Hindu temples. After his victory, he exacted a tribute from them for their vandalism. But when Vijayanagar fell before the Muslim armies at the Battle of Talikota (1565), the Portuguese resumed their iconoclasm.
The book has a treasure trove of information that an article cannot do justice to; a must read for lovers of Hindu temples and history.
[The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple, 3rd ed., Voice of India, Delhi, 2010; Pages: 407; Price: Rs 450/-]