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A Novice Views India, Part III: uncertain Christian pasts

The last of my photo posts from my 2018 visit to India takes on a smaller task than last time’s monster, although maybe only in terms of available material. The last one was a seventh- and eighth-century CE monumental temple complex; this one’s core building was put up only in 1523 CE and then rebuilt by the British in 1896, so it’s in no way medieval, but what it houses might be first-century. That’s not medieval either, you may well observe, and fair enough, but presumably something happened here in between. It’s just quite hard to say what. Where are we talking about, Jonathan? Well, it’s the Saint Thomas Cathedral Basilica and National Shrine of Saint Thomas in Chennai. Here it is in its British-rebuilt state.

The Santhome Basilica, Chennai, India

Architectural details of the Santhome Basilica, Chennai

Architectural details

Now, how far back this site goes is, perhaps appropriately, partly a matter of faith. When I first read about the spread of Christianity eastwards, as a then-fairly-atheistic undergraduate, I read that although the cult of St Thomas in India was widely held to involve the Biblical apostle Thomas, and therefore to have its origins with the first generation of Christians ever, there was an alternative theory that there was another Thomas who went to India in the fifth century who had become associated with the Biblical Thomas, and because of who I was then I grabbed that and internalised it.1 Now, I recognise it as looking like the sort of scholarship which has taken as its mission to knock over the tenets of world religions, usually Christianity or Islam, and is just as ideologically directed as its target, so now I don’t know and I just note that it seems to be accepted that there was already Christianity in India in the first century.2 Either way, as long as it has been supposd that Saint Thomas came to India, he is supposed, having done that, eventually to have been martyred on a hill in Chennai. So whether in the crypt of this Portuguese-built cathedral I saw an apostle’s shrine or not, I am not going to try to decide; I shall just point out that among those who have thought so were Marco Polo, two hundred years before this cathedral even went up, and presumably also the Portuguese churchmen who had this building put up over what Marco Polo saw, so if I were to think so, I’d have company.3

The Guru Yesu Illam at the Santhome Basilica, Chennai

That doesn’t mean that everyone arriving was not surprised by what they saw, of course, and in that respect I was also in their company. I suppose you could call Christ a guru…

However, this uncertainty exists partly because of the lack of solid evidence. Firstly, the church is in one of the most populous and crowded cities in India, and so there really hasn’t been any archaeology on the site as far as I can determine. There is a museum next to the cathedral, but while it is interesting, it isn’t really that helpful. That is partly because I came to it with the wrong questions, of course; it is a cathedral museum at an apostle’s shrine so what it’s mainly interested in is the saint, his cult and the current church, whereas I wanted to know about basically all the bits in between. But it’s also because they themselves don’t necessarily have the kind of answers I wanted; they just have the stuff, and not so very much of that. Now, some of that stuff may be very very old…

Reliquary of Saint Thomas in the museum of the Santhome Basilica, Chennai

For example, right in the middle of this is supposed to be a fragment of the spear with which Saint Thomas was martyred, which would thus be a piece of regular Indian material culture of the first century CE

… albeit in a more modern cladding, but some of it is just ‘old’.

Display case of potsherds at the museum of the Santhome Basilica, Chennai

Display case of potsherds

I assume that this stuff was found when the cathedral was rebuilt in 1896, but the signage literally just says, “Broken earthenware. Earthenware of olden days”, so I really am only guessing.

Signage at the museum of the Santhome Basilica, Chennai

My photo of the signage is not very good, but just in case it helps you believe me, here it is

I’m not sure, therefore, that even the curators know where these bits and pieces came from, and if they’ve been studied, that hasn’t made it through to the museum signage. There are some things with which there is a bit more certainty…

Inscription of the reign of Vikrama Chola in the museum of the Santhome Basilica, Chennai

Tamil inscription of the reign of Vikrama Chola (r. c. 1118–1135 CE)

… presumably because this one, in the manner of much epigraphy, is self-explanatory (though of course I can’t read it myself, and so don’t know if it has anything to do with the church). Apparently there is also a cross of seventh- or eighth-century date somewhere around the back of the cathedral, but I didn’t find it. After that, however, we’re into things which can be dated only by supposition, and they are mostly remnants of the previous church, by which we mean the Portuguese one of 1523. And it is nice to have the beginnings of an idea what that looked like, I guess…

Ornamental pediment from the Portuguese basilica of Santhome da Chennai

Part of cross-slab from the Portuguese basilica of Santhome da Chennai

Carved stonework from the Portuguese basilica of Santhome da Chennai

Here is the display setting of the previous piece; I enjoy the way that lions have become part of the architecture, but who’s to say whether they belonged to the actual church or not?

Portuguese-inscribed tombstone in the museum of the Santhome Basilica, Chennai

In theory I can read Portuguese, but epigraphically-shortened Old Portuguese might be a special case as I can get very little out of this…

Portuguese-inscribed tombstone in the museum of the Santhome Basilica, Chennai

… and this one gives one even less to go on, but I’m pretty sure at least that the deceased was called Jorge

The outlier, though, is this statue.

Statue of a holy figure with book in the museum of the Santhome Basilica, Chennai

This is one side of a double-sided pedestal statue, and the on-site signage not unreasonably believes it to represent Saint Thomas, but I have to admit that my first assumption would have been Christ Pantokrator. But maybe my Byzantinist assumptions don’t apply here…

Statue of Saint Thomas in the museum of the Santhome Basilica, Chennai

This is the other side, and its caption says, "This figure is identified as that of Kandappa Raja (Gondophares), the supposed King of Mylapore whom St. Thomas converted. The left heel is raised as in the act of walking, while the right foot rests on the ground." And this is as may be, but I note that this figure also carries the book in his left hand which made me think of Christ on the other side. And is that a crown behind his head, a halo, or something he carries over his shoulder?

In terms of context, the signage here says merely that this was “found near the tomb of St. Thomas”. Knowing when and by whom would really help here: was it found by the British in 1896, or by the Portuguese in 1523? Does anyone know? And I could figure the figure in motion as Renaissance or early modern if I had to, but if someone came back and said no sir, that is completely coherent with Indian sculpture of Chola period, I would have to admit they knew better. And besides, I’m not sure that the standing figure is in the same style, which might suggest that that face is medieval work and the other early modern… But I’m not sure I know what they show either!

So at the end of all this, I still don’t know if I’ve shown you anything medieval other than a Chola inscription and maybe "broken earthenware". And yet, be it never so humble, this place has been an important site of devotion, pilgrimage, Church government, protest and sanctuary, and an anchor for numerous migrant Christian communities to boot, for who knows how many centuries?4 But certainly enough for it to be a medieval site, and today that will have to do. Next post, whenever it is, will bring us back to the early medieval West where I more normally hang out, then I have another set of photos of a religious site but not one in India, and after that I’m not even sure actually though I’ve definitely got material. So we’ll see. But today we end with uncertainty, and sometimes you just have to settle for that.


1. I don’t know, now, what that reading was, but somewhat to my surprise I still have the relevant essay (and, what is more marvellous, can still open the file) and its bibliography raises the nasty possibility that it was in fact Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (Harmondsworth 1986), in which case I’m sorry, I should even then have known better…

2. Robert Eric Frykenberg, Christianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present (Oxford 2010), is where I’d now start on these questions. On what the Portuguese found when they arrived and what they tried to do about it, see István Perczel, “Some New Documents on the Struggle of the Saint Thomas Christians to Maintain the Chaldaean Rite and Jurisdiction”, in Peter Bruns & Heinz Otto Luthe (edd.), Orientalia Christiana: Festschrift für Hubert Kaufhold zum 70. Geburtstag, Eichstätter Beiträge zur christlichen Orient 3 (Wiesbaden 2013), pp. 415–436.

3. Namit Arora, “Marco Polo’s India”, Kyoto Journal no. 74, Silk Roads: Samarkand to Nara (June 2010), author’s earlier online version here.

4. In particular, inside the church, where photography was not allowed, a goodly number of the floor-slabs turned out to be memorials in Armenian, sometimes with limited translations into Latin, and with that prompt I eventually learned that there was a whole early modern Armenian trading diaspora (on which see Ruquia K. Hussain, “The Firm in Armenian Asian Commerce of the Seventeenth Century”, Studies in People’s History Vol. 2 no. 1: Trade and Merchants in Indian History (New York City, NY, 2015), pp. 76–84, DOI: 10.1177/2348448915574378). But that really would be another blog post, and not one I’m qualified to write! In any case, some of them were in Chennai and buried at Santhome (as it then would still have been) in ornate style.

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