Just a stone’s throw from the sands of Marina Beach in Chennai lies the Santhome Basilica, a towering structure in pristine white that is one of the only three churches in the world to house the remains of the one of the original Apostles of Jesus, St. Thomas or Doubting Thomas, who is most famous for refusing to believe in the resurrection of Jesus until he saw the physical injuries on Jesus’ body and for being instrumental in spreading Christianity in South India back in the 1st century A.D.
St. Thomas, also referred to as the Apostle of India, reached Muziris in Kerala in 52 A.D. and baptized several people who are known as Syrian Christians today. He then proceeded to perform conversions along the entire Malabar coast and established churches along the banks of the Periyar River. He was accidentally killed by a stray arrow from a fowler’s bow in Chennai in 72 A.D. He is buried at Mylapore, Santhome in Chennai.
Portuguese explorers in the 16th century built a church over his tomb which was rebuilt in its present neo-Gothic style with the status of a cathedral by the British in the late 19th century. It is now known as Santhome Basilica and is revered by Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike.
On our visit, we were lucky to the witness the Special Devotion and Mass that is conducted on the Day of St. Thomas, which falls on 3rd July and is celebrated on the 3rd of every month. On this day, the blood soaked earth and the lance that killed St. Thomas are ceremonially buried with him. Hundreds of people bent their heads in prayer as the chief priest hailed the Lord’s name in earnest, set to popular Tamil music.
The figure of Jesus as depicted in the church is curiously different from the traditional portrayal of Jesus. In this depiction, there are two peacocks standing on either side of Jesus’ feet and a traditional lotus at the base of his feet, showcasing the intermingling of cultures that often occurs in a historically multi-cultural space like India. The peacocks and the lotus are Eastern symbols of prophecy and are used to depict Jesus as Priest, King and Prophet.
The interior of the basilica also contains 20 murals beautifully depicting the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus lined along the walls, domed with an undulating wooden ceiling, interspersed with chandeliers that threw pretty light upon the holy congregation. The posterior of the church showcases a wonderful stained glass painting of the Last Supper that was installed during the construction of the present structure in 1896 and was imported from Munich, Germany.
The sprawling church compound also has a Basilica Museum that is a treasure house of great antiquity, which includes the lance-head that killed St.Thomas.