The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 22, 2002
Lead Article

Celebrating the Apostle’s coming
K. R. N. Swamy

The X-mas this year is being celebrated as the 1950th year of Apostle St Thomas coming to India

St Thomas Museum, Chennai
St Thomas Museum, Chennai

THE two-month-long celebration, that started on November 17 this year in Cochin, commemorating the 1950th year of Apostle St. Thomas’ arrival in India, was symbolic of Indian culture. A hundred thousand- strong congregation of Christians, presided over by the erudite Muslim President of India, Abul Kalam, so steeped in Hinduism. Three major Christian organisations, (representing the 22-million-strong Christian community), the Evangelical Fellowship of India with more than 100 church groups, the National Council of Churches in India (consisting of 29 Orthodox and Protestant Churches) and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, have come together for the November-December 2002, celebration of the arrival of the disciple of Christ," in Kerala in A.D. 52.

Portion of finger of St Thomas that touched Christ, showcased at St Thomas Museum
Portion of finger of St Thomas that touched Christ, showcased at St Thomas Museum

On this occasion, the speakers lauded the spiritual labours of St. Thomas and St. Francis Xavier, who had expired in 1552, 450 years ago. The mortal remains of St. Xavier, are preserved in the Church of Bom Jesus in Goa for the last four-and-a-half centuries. Even during the hurried evacuation of the Portuguese from India in 1961, they did not have the courage to offend the local Indian sentiment by taking the body to Portugal. St. Thomas was martyred 1930 years ago in A.D. 72 at Mylapore, near Chennai and his body had been buried in the crypt of the present-day Santhome Basilica. One group of historians hold, that in the 13th century, the body was removed to be kept in Edessa in Syria, later transferred to Ortona in Italy by the Vatican. Another set of researchers, claims that the Portuguese found the mortal remains in early 16th century at Mylapore Santhome church. Centuries ago, there were not sufficient devotees of St. Thomas in Madras to prevent this vandalism.


The Christian Church in India had found it difficult to create a museum for the relics of St. Thomas in India. Christian congregations in Kerala have, over the years, with the help of scholars have recreated memorial shrines in all the churches, established by the Apostle. In Chennai, the sacred possessions of St. Thomas, like the 2000-year-old painting of Madonna and the Child (by St. Luke, another of the Apostles), are preserved in the St. Thomas Mount Church. According to Revered Father Adaikalam, the identification of the relics was a difficult task. All these treasures of Christianity had been assembled, by Father Hosten, a Belgian priest of the Catholic Archdiocese in the 1920s. It had involved meticulous research, as nearly 19 centuries had passed since the martyrdom of St. Thomas and the Portuguese had taken away, a number of important relics. But, Father Hosten persisted in his labour of love and there was an exhibition of the photograph of these treasures in the Vatican Museum in 1925. In 1952 India celebrated the 19 centuries of the arrival of St. Thomas and the curator Reverend Father as Figredo kept the finds in his office, after the celebrations. After his demise, these relics were scattered to different places and some items were even kept buried! In 1972, as the commemoration of the 1900th death anniversary of St. Thomas was decided on, the Catholic Archbishop of Madras decided, that a museum must be created, adjacent to the Santhome Cathedral. This small museum, started in 1985 and comprising just two large halls, is keeping the relics associated with St. Thomas safe for visitors.

In 1892, the old Cathedral built by the Portuguese in the 16th century was replaced with the present edifice. It is apparent that there was no "heritage"-conscious devotees 110 years ago, as the old building (as could be seen from a photograph) was more in tune with Indian architectural nuances. This reconstruction was a blunder because during the process many historic relics, some of them 1800 years old, like the stone slab that had covered the grave of St. Thomas were "misplaced" and has not been found again.

At the entrance to the museum there are two carved stones, which according to the museum authorities might be the ones referred by St. Gregory-Bishop of Tours (France) in 590 A.D. As "In that part of India, where the remains of St. Thomas rested, stand a monastery and a church of striking dimensions, elaborately adorned and designed." Other interesting items, are two stone medallions carved in stone and are supposed to be that of the king of Mylapore-during whose reign the Saint was killed and that of his son. A map, dated 1519 displayed is marking the place where St. Thomas was buried. In addition, there are a number of carved stones showing a cross between two peacocks, a Sanskrit inscription, and a number of unidentified inscriptions.

An ornate item is a chair with the episcopal coat of arms dating from the year 1611. One interesting carving is a double figure in stone and all research point out to one of the figures being the representation of St. Thomas. Friar Paulinus, in his book "Christian Oriental India" elates printed in Rome in 1794, says that this stone was found near the tomb of St. Thomas and describes one of the figures as St. Thomas, "dressed in a garment falling down to the heels, holding in his left hand on his breast a book, and with the right hand in the pose of blessing or teaching". There are some St. Thomas gold coins — known as Santhomes, specially minted in Goa in 1548 in honour of the Saint. The most important exhibits are two relic holders, one containing "the iron tip of the spear which was used to kill the saint by his enemies". This iron spear was found in the St. Thomas Mount in Madras by the Portuguese in 1523 and over the years was kept in many important catholic bishopries of India and ultimately now in Santhome. Over the centuries, the iron has rusted away, but still, we can see the sharp contours of the spear.

The other holder contains the most important item in the museum — a portion of the finger that touched Christ.... As is known, St. Thomas had said that he would not believe in the Resurrection till he had felt the Risen Christ and his wounds with his own finger — "Except I put my hand into His side, I will not believe (John 20.25)". In 1952, the Pope decided to gift to India, a portion of this finger from the relics kept at Ortona in Italy, in order to commemorate the 1900 years of arrival of St. Thomas in India and Cardinal Tisserant officiating for the Pope, presented this precious relic to Indian Christianity.

There are a number of paintings displayed on the various incidents in the life of St. Thomas. When you enter the Basilica nearby, you can see the crypt, where the saint’s body was originally buried. The St. Thomas Museum is the symbol of the two millenniums’ old Christian tradition in India. — MF