This is Maria and Anbu at their wedding at the St Thomas Basilica in Mylapore, just off Chennai's Marina Beach. By chance, I happened to be there as the couple emerged from the church - and they were happy for me to take a few photos. The bride is wearing a stunning ensemble of sari and fine lace bridal train. It was obviously quite some wedding.
And quite some venue too ...
The Basilica boasts of being one of only three churches built over the tomb of an apostle - the others being St Peter's in Rome and the tomb of St James in north-west Spain. Yes, St Thomas, "Doubting" Thomas - the one who wouldn't believe the resurrection until he put his fingers in Christ's crucifixion wounds - lies buried in Chennai (or more accurately it's where his tomb is said to be).
An old Portuguese church used to mark the spot - but it was pulled down in the 1890s and this grander, gaudier, building put up in its place.
The entrance to the tomb is not through the church but an adjoining, non-descript, modern building. The crypt is downstairs - no photography is allowed. And on top of the tomb is a lifelike modern effigy, none too impressive, of an apparently naked man under a blanket. A touch disappointing, as tombs of the apostles go -
How did St Thomas end up in southern India? Well, there seems to be a host of accounts suggesting that he headed east after Christ's death. St Thomas Christians believe that he landed in a port in Kerala in 52 CE, almost twenty years after the crucifixion. He eventually moved over to the east coast, where he died a violent death - speared to death indeed - in 72 CE,
The story of Thomas bringing the Christian gospel to India is an ancient one and deeply embedded in Indian Christianity. Scholars generally accept that Christianity reached southern India by the third century of the Christian era, but they tend to regard the Thomas story as legend. It's not at all impossible - there were trade links between the Roman Empire and the Kerala coast in Christ's time - but might be best be described as unproven,
The belief in St Thomas coming to India is particularly associated with the Syrian Christian tradition, which remains strong in Kerala with millions of adherents. It's also a deeply fractured movement, with Syrian Christians variously in the Catholic tradition (both Roman and Syrian), within Orthodoxy (57 varieties as far as I can make out) and in Protestantism too.
In Chennai, however, the St Thomas tradition has been monopolised by the Roman Catholic church. It's their show. But the tomb may be empty. It's believed that the Saint's remains, or much of them, were taken to the Middle East many centuries ago, and from there ended up at a church in Italy. Not to be outdone, one of the leaflets handed out at the Basilica offers for sale what looks like a credit card containing grains of sand from the tomb, relics which are said to bear miraculous properties.
And then there is the story about Thomas and the Virgin Mary's girdle ... the Holy Girdle ... bits of which are scattered at sites across the south of India. But you know what - let's not go there!
A few miles from the Basilica, at a place called Little Mount, is a sixteenth century Portuguese church which gives access to a cave where St Thomas lived for a while. Indeed, so we're told, his footprint, palm print and finger print can be seen in the sheer, solid rock of the cave, Then there's the cross he carved in the stone and the place where he struck a rock with his shaft and water came forth. Thomas was quite a guy!
Further out of town, near the airport, is St Thomas Mount, 'the cradle and glory of the Indian Church'. This is where the Saint is reputed to have met his death. A winding path with 135 steps which leads up to the mount, and from there you have a commanding view over Chennai.
A Portuguese church at the summit contains relics: a piece of bone of the Saint and the spearhead which killed him. The religious literature on sale here records - I'm just telling you what it says - that the church has a portrait of the Madonna painted by St Luke which Thomas brought with him to India ... and a stone cross carved by St Thomas which has on occasions sweated blood (though the most recent such haemorrhage was way back in 1704).
The St Thomas Mount shrine is dedicated to "Our Lady of Expectation" - one of the more unusual names for the Virgin Mary. And that makes still more incongruous one of the services offered to the faithful here ... a marriage bureau!
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