India’s little-known apostolic shrine

  • Travel
  • Saturday, 15 Mar 2008

Chennai in Tamil Nadu is where you will find one of three churches in the world built over the tomb of an Apostle.

Only three churches in the world have been built over the tomb of an Apostle of Jesus Christ.

One is the Basilica of Saint Peter, which covers the tomb of St Peter in Rome. The second is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which was built over the tomb of St James in Spain, and then there is the St Thomas Cathedral basilica, which was erected over the tomb of St Thomas in Mylapore, Chennai, in South India.

The nave of St Thomas Cathedral basilica where the congregation meet.

While millions of pilgrims visit the Basilicas in Europe, the one in India remains relatively unknown. Hence, in 2004, the Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore embarked on a restoration programme of the church and tomb, and launched a quarterly magazine called Voice of St Thomas.

That same year, the archbishop, Dr A. M. Chinnappa, said that the basilica was honoured to be officially recognised as a National Shrine at the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.

“Soon, we hope to elevate St Thomas Cathedral Basilica as an international shrine,” he said.

St Thomas arrived in 52AD at Cranganore, South India, on the Malabar Coast, now called Kerala. As a result, Christianity reached India long before it was introduced to many parts of Europe. He established seven churches on the Malabar Coast, before going to Mylapore, Madras (now called Chennai).

St Thomas died in 72AD after he was pierced by a lance while praying on St Thomas Mount, a 91m-high hill 14km southwest of Chennai. His body was taken to Mylapore and buried in the chapel he had built with his own hands.

Legend surrounding the chapel has it that a huge log of wood was washed ashore near what is now known as Santhome. Even elephants could not move this log, but St Thomas used his girdle to pull it out. The king of Mylapore was so amazed by this miraculous feat that he donated the log to St Thomas, who promptly built a small chapel with it.

In the 10th century AD, Christians from Persia (Iran), founded a Christian village in Santhome and erected a church over the tomb of St Thomas. In 1523, the Portuguese built a new church over the ruins of the old one.

It was here in 1545 that St Francis Xavier spent several months in prayer before leaving for the Far East. Marco Polo also mentions visiting this chapel and tomb in his travelogue. The Portuguese chapel has since 1896 been rebuilt into the present Gothic edifice called St Thomas Cathedral Basilica.

Doubting Thomas

St Thomas was one of Jesus Christ’s 12 Apostles, but was not present when Jesus first appeared to them after his resurrection. Told of the appearance, St Thomas replied that he would only believe it if he puts his finger on the nail and spear wounds in Jesus’ hands and side.

From then on, he was often referred to as Doubting Thomas.

A stained glass window depicting Doubting Thomas putting afinger into Jesus’ wound.

When Jesus appeared again a week later to the Apostles, he invited St Thomas to put his finger on the holes in his hands and side. Convinced, Thomas immediately exclaimed, “My Lord, my God!”

“Once he was enlightened, St Thomas went on to convince the greatest sceptics as far away as India,” said Ravi Zacharias, president of Zacharias International Ministries.

The cathedral in his name overlooks the Bay of Bengal. It is 47m high and has a nave 34m x 10m. Its sanctuary, 19m long and 10m wide, is adorned with stained glass windows depicting St Thomas and the other Apostles.

Their portraits with their epithets are on the walls flanking the sanctuary.

Beside the chancel is a seated Statue of St Thomas. Ornately crafted seats line the front row of the sanctuary.

“My team and I undertook the formidable task of restoring over 65 sq m of stained glass which included careful dismantling, labelling, documenting and photographing,” said stained glass conservation expert, Swati Chandgadkar.

“We found ‘time cracks’ in the glass at the heads and limbs of the Apostles. These cracks were invisible from the ground level as they were filled with dust and dirt. However, conservation meant we could not replace it with new glass. We had to do our best to preserve the artist’s original work and even then the re-painting could only be done in an ‘imitative’ manner, rather than trying to be perfect,” said Chandgadkar.

Restoration was completed by 2004, and now these “walls of light”, as Swati calls the windows, continue to have the same medieval allure as before. The pulpit is crowned by a magnificently carved eagle at its helm.

The Tomb Chapel

The tomb of St Thomas, unchanged from the spot he was buried in 72AD, had an underground chapel constructed over it in 2004. As this tomb is also a tourist attraction, a separate access outside the church was constructed so that visitors do not interrupt ongoing church services.

The chapel is 22m long and 6m wide, and can accommodate 150 people at a time.

Built in a Gothic style.

Beside the staircase leading down into the basement and the underground chapel is the museum and mini-theatre.

In the basement is a main lobby. Two separate hyperbola passages lead to the chapel and tomb. The lobby is 15m by 6m and contains some venerable attractions, such as a sculpture of St Thomas praying on St Thomas Mount and a native poised behind him with a lance ready to kill him.

There is also a reproduction of Michelangelo’s famous painting called The Incredulity Of Saint Thomas.

The prize attraction is the tomb itself. A statue of St Thomas lying down, encased in glass, sits directly atop the place he was buried. On top of the glass case are the immortalised words of St Thomas, “My Lord, My God.”

Located over the basement housing the underground chapel cum tomb is the museum, which holds a treasure trove of antiquities including the lance head that pierced St Thomas.

There is also a bone fragment from his hand which touched the side of Jesus Christ, a double eagle antique chair with the Episcopal coat of arms dating back to 1611AD, Lectionaries, Bibles, St Thomas coins and many other priceless artefacts.

The mini-theatre there is modelled after the theatres of other international shrines, such as in Lourdes, France; Fatima, Portugal; and Padua, Italy. It is used to screen a video on the life of St Thomas and the history behind the cathedral and tomb.

Related Story:Miracles on the Mount They saw a light

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