Chennai, a study in contrasts, where IT coexists with cottage industry, modern glass buildings live cheek by jowl with agraharams and orchids are sold along with the ubiquitous jasmine. So it really comes as no surprise that temple bells and church bells unite in their call for prayers. And as much as temples contribute to Chennai, so do its many churches. But how did Christianity come to Chennai? The long saga of Christianity began when St. Thomas, an apostle, picked a chit which had Asia written on it, and so had to come here to spread the word of his God.
This apostle made Chennai his home and preached here, staking claim to the title of the founder of Christianity in India. It is not insignificant that Christianity came to India with him, in 52 AD, much before it was even recognized as a religion in the west. Thomas lived in what is today called Parangi malai, or Little Mount, in a cave and prayed and preached from there. Till date, one can see the cave with its spring, which Thomas brought forth to help the people who were suffering due to drought. There is an imprint of a hand on the wall there, which people believe is the apostle’s. The site where he was killed, on St. Thomas’ Mount, is a land mark today, for there is a small but beautiful Portuguese church standing there. It houses a cross, which is said to have bled, and a secret passage which connects it to the cave in Little Mount. All these stories lend an aura of mysticism to the place. Today, it is the best spot to have an uninterrupted view of the busy Chennai airport, and the city beyond. The small church on St. Thomas Mount is a memorial to this man who came from so far away to preach a new religion in a strange land, driven solely by the force of this conviction.
A long drive leads you through some of Chennai’s busiest roads and to Santhome, the place where the basilica of the same name stands, with its tall white spire visible for miles around. This breath taking white Gothic basilica is a monument to Saint Thomas again, and is said to be built over the remains of the apostle. His body was brought down and buried here before it was disinterred by the Portuguese and taken away to Spain. They constructed a small church here, which was later rebuilt by the British a century ago. The beautiful stained glass behind the altar shows St. Thomas touching Christ’s wounds. According to legend, St. Thomas was the original Doubting Thomas. It seems he refused to believe Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and said he would believe it only if he saw and touched the wounds on Christ’s body. He did, and the relic in the crypt below the Basilica has a fragment of a bone from his hand, that believers say touched the wounds on the body of Jesus Christ.
The skyline of Chennai today is a medley of buildings – temples, churches and of late, multi storied IT hubs. But the story of St Thomas, who came way back in 52 AD, still stands tall. Many powers came after him and the architects of Christianity in India have been many – the Portugese, Dutch, Danish, French, Armenians, British … and each invariably built towering monuments to their faith, many of which still dot Chennai’s skyline. The Luz Church, Armenian Church, St Mary’s Church at the Fort, St Andrew’s Kirk, are just some beautiful examples. A drive past these surviving monuments is an enjoyable experience that helps you reflect upon the city, its history and the common stereotypes associated with it in a new light.