Chennai’s 2000 year old Christian legacy

Temple gopurams and church spires dot Chennai’s skyline, side by side, bearing witness to the centuries old coexistence of Hinduism and Christianity. Christianity reached India over 2000 years ago. But how did something that started somewhere around modern day Palestine, gain such a strong foothold in ancient India?

The long saga of Christianity in India, according to Christian tradition, began with St. Thomas, one of Christ’s 12 apostles. Legend has it, that after the crucifixion, the apostles gathered for a draw to decide where each must go, and spread the teachings of Jesus. Thomas would choose a mission that sent him to the Indian Subcontinent.

In early 52AD, after travelling for several years through Arabia and modern day Afghanistan and Baluchistan, Thomas finally made landfall in Southern India’s Malabar coast. Today the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala, trace their origins to this event.

Thomas continued his work in India’s southern tip, preaching along the shores of the Periyar river in Kerala, till he arrived in Chennai. Here, in 72AD, atop the hillock known in Tamil as Parangimalai or St. Thomas Mount, he would become a martyr. Today, A beautiful 16th century Portuguese shrine marks the spot of his death. Go here, when you are in Chennai, to breathe in an uninterrupted view of the city.

A two-and-a-half-hour drive east from here, will take you through some of Chennai’s busiest roads, to Santhome. Here, you will find the breath-taking St. Thomas Basilica with its tall white spire visible from miles away. This 19th century Neo Gothic monument was built by the British over the tomb of St. Thomas, who was buried here by his disciples after his death. It was actually the Portuguese who marked the place first with a small church in the 16th century. When the British took over, the then Bishop of Mylapore decided to rebuild it into what it is today, to better communicate the significance of the place.

Visit it when you are in Chennai to see the beautiful stained-glass window behind the altar showing Thomas touching Christ’s wounds. According to legend, St. Thomas was the original doubting Thomas. He refused to believe in Christ’s resurrection, till he himself saw and touched the resurrected Christ and his wounds. A relic in the crypt below the Basilica, is said to house a fragment of bone from St. Thomas’ hand which touched the wounds of Christ.

Most of the oldest Christian churches and communities in South India, link their origin to St. Thomas. Each have different stories to tell and own different relics to prove them. The exact course of events may be unclear, but the fact remains, that Christianity gained a following in India much before it was even officially recognized as a religion. It was only much later in the early fourth century that Christianity was accepted as a religion under the Roman Empire. That’s almost 250 years after the first Indians became Christians. Today Chennai has one of the highest Christian populations among major Indian cities, accounting for around 7.6 percent of the city’s 4.9 million residents.

To discover more about Chennai’s Christian link and many other stories, download the Storytrails app and try the Steeplechase Audio Tour.

Happy Walking 😊

Image credit: Bikashrd [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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