Wednesday, March 09, 2016

St Thomas Basilica

Following on from my recent posts about St Thomas Mount and Little Mount, this one explores another key Thomas location, St Thomas Basilica in Mylapore, Chennai, India. This is the place where Thomas's tomb is allegedly located and an impressive neo-Gothic cathedral is on the site.

Once again, I recorded my thoughts and edited them in the latest episode of the NT Pod:

NT Pod 79: Santhome Basilica

The magnificent white church building was built by the British in the late nineteenth century but the basilica was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century (cf. the church at Little Mount). I decided to make the journey by bus, which is something of a challenge, not least because the buses in Chennai are so unbelievably crowded. But they are also unbelievably cheap. A one-way journey lasting an hour (over about 17 km) cost me just 12 rupees (about 12p or 18c).

There is one huge advantage that this site has over the previous two that I visited -- it has a museum dedicated to the Apostle Thomas. And the museum features several items of interest. Unlike St Thomas Mount, it is not just about John 20 and "My Lord and My God". There is much more by way of the apocryphal Thomas traditions, perhaps most interestingly this relic of the lancehead that supposedly killed Thomas.
There is also a double-sided pedestal that references King Gondophores and the legend of the log on the one side (a legend also illustrated in a relief that is on the wall of the museum), and Thomas in teaching mode on the other side.

Somewhat frustratingly, a lot of the other material in the museum is labelled only in the most vague way imaginable. So there is an entire display of ancient pottery apparently discovered at the site, with dating only to "the olden days"! So too another display of bones is said to be from that same period.

The museum itself is situated above Thomas's tomb. The tomb is at the front of a chapel with pews where people pray and reflect. There is not a lot to see -- it's a colourful, relatively modern representation of Thomas in glass casing.

Although in the podcast I say that I could not take a photograph in there, I later managed to return to the site when it was empty and I took a quick pic while no one was looking.

I should also mention the large golden "pole of St Thomas" which stands tall to the side of the cathedral. It is reminiscent of the similar poll at St Thomas' Mount, although this one is taller and has a much smaller cross at the top.

Inside the cathedral itself, I should mention a nice statue of Thomas that sits to the left of the altar. Thomas is holding the legend "Deus Meus" (My God), so here, for once, we do not get the whole Johannine confession. Again, we were not supposed to be taking photographs, but my visit happened to coincide with a coachload of pilgrims from Nagaland, all of whom were snapping away with gay abandon (and rather bizarrely, they also all wanted to get pictures with me! I sat with various members of the group outside the cathedral for a good ten or fifteen photos!).

I was a touch disappointed that the promised twenty minute film about Thomas, which is very proudly advertised just outside the museum, was nowhere in evidence. At least I found it impossible to find anyone who could tell me any more about it.

Another curiosity of my visit, and this is partly reflected in the podcast, is the pursuit (one might say harassment) by several auto rickshaw drivers. One of them followed me around the entire site, usually on foot, but sometimes in his auto. At first, he made out that he was connected with the site and I foolishly engaged him in conversation. But soon it became clear that he wanted my business.

Once I'd shaken him, I got another, who even sat next to me in the cathedral. Once rid of him, and after the photographing session with the people from Nagaland, a third one began to pursue me. This one was the worst, and pursued me down the road after I left the site, even driving ahead of me, hiding behind a tree and jumping out in front of me.

Gandhi, on the beach at Mylapore, Chennai
A fourth auto driver was honest enough to tell me why they were so keen for business -- a group of four local shops selling hand-crafted goods were offering a 5kg bag of rice to any auto driver who brought them a new customer. Much later in the day, after my Veg Maharaja Mac at McDonald's, I happened to meet this guy again at the beach, where I was heading in the direction of the bus-stop for my journey back, and I rewarded his honesty by going on the little shop-tour so that he could pick up his bag of rice. But of course no good deed goes unpunished. We parted on bad terms because I would not also pay his rent for the next month.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Little Mount

Following on from my recent post about St Thomas Mount, this one explores another key Thomas location, Little Mount (Chinnamalai), also in Chennai.

It's the place where Thomas allegedly faced his death, and the church is built over the cave where he hid from persecution.

As before, I recorded my impressions of the site as I visited it, and I have released it as an episode of the NT Pod:

NT Pod 78: Little Mount

The site itself is tucked away down a side street (the "L.D.G. Road") with no sign-posts in sight. It caused my driver some degree of stress, to the point where I eventually got out of the car and walked. I could see where it was on my Sat Nav on my phone, but he was not inclined to trust it.

"Little Mount" really is only a few steps up from the road, and is nothing like the climb up to St Thomas Mount. Although it is the large round twentieth century church that makes the big impression, it's the old chapel built by the Portuguese in 1551 that houses Thomas's cave.

The chapel is small, but pleasantly cool if you are visiting on a hot day. A few pews look up towards a shrine of the Virgin Mary, but down to the left is St Thomas's cave.

I did not try recording in the chapel or the cave, not least because a gentleman hovered around me looking anxious when I had my phone out. But I did manage to grab a couple of quick pics.

There's a nice old explanatory placard before you go down to the cave. It's just the kind of thing one wants to see on these occasions.

The old marble placard reads, as best I can decipher it, as follows:

The cave where lay hid persecuted just before being martyred by Rajah Mahadevan, king of Mylapore, A.D. 68, Thomas, one of the twelve, the great Apostle of India, the very one who put his finger into the wounds of his Lord and God. Drop your penny for this great historical and archaeological monument.

While I was there, a woman went down into the cave to do some sweeping (I have seen a lot of women sweeping in India) and to collect up the pennies that had been dropped.

The cave itself is not for the claustrophobic. It has a proper bend-down-low entrance. There is a small shrine inside the cave, and a red circle marks the spot where Thomas was allegedly martyred.

The cave is without doubt the major attraction. I wondered whether it gets horribly crowded at busy times. I was happy to have it to all to myself. There were several praying in the chapel while I was there but none went down to the cave. I think I may have been the only tourist type there. 

While I was sitting outside the chapel, by this sign pointing to "St. Thomas Cave", a gentleman approached me and pointed to "water". I thought he was worried that I was overheating, but in retrospect, I think he may have been directing my attention to the miraculous spring. 

On the way there, one sees a rocky feature that draws attention to Thomas's footprint.

Up a few steps, one enters a separate chamber that has two key features. This is one -- a fountain with water that "cures diseases". The water is now behind bars and presumably inaccessible to present-day pilgrims.

The other is also a rocky crag, and it features a cross that is cut out of the rock.

This cross is behind glass and has the header "cross made by St. Thomas". Above it is a sign that says that the cross bled for many years in the 16th and 17th centuries.

There was a lady hovering around me the whole time that I was looking at these things, and I realized after a while that she was waiting for a contribution. It was rather a formal process -- she wrote it all down in her book and handed me a receipt. But once given, she allowed me to take my pics and do my recordings without hassle.

Little Mount also has a park it labels "Holy Land", accessible through some large pink gates. The idea of the park is that it imitates Jerusalem, and features colourfully represented elements from the Passion Narrative.

The most striking of these is a trial scene featuring Jesus (with a red robe and a green crown of thorns),  a centurion and two black elephants!

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

St Thomas Mount

The NT Pod and the NT Blog go on the road! It's long been an ambition of mine to visit the sites connected with the Apostle Thomas out in Chennai (formerly Madras) in India. I decided to photograph my visit and also to record my reflections.

You can listen to my first ever "on the road" episode of the NT Pod here:

NT Pod 77: St Thomas Mount

It is about 14 minutes long. The audio quality is of course much worse than usual. I was recording on my iPhone and I am a bit breathless as I climb the steps early the episode. And the wind at the top of the mount also interferes with the recording, as do the sounds of the planes above. But I hope that you enjoy a bit of the Chennai ambience, especially all those honking cars.

I arrived at the mount by taxi after a getting stuck in a very long traffic jam. Chennai traffic can be choc-a-bloc. I must admit that there is no way that I would want to drive here. It can be pretty terrifying to see how India drivers drive, and it's amazing that there are not more accidents. It's a question of experience, I suppose.

St Thomas Mount is in Chennai and is pretty close to the airport. There's a enjoyably battered old sign that greets you on entry (right), with a "tiffin" stall just underneath.

Beyond the battered old sign, to the left as we look, is the facade at the bottom of the mount that marks the beginning of the journey to the top. This nicely white-washed appearance is characteristic of the whole, including the walls either side of the steps on the way to the top, and the chapel building on top of the mount.

As one walks up the steps, the stations of the cross appear at regular intervals.

I visited the site on a Monday afternoon in February and there were only a few people around. And few of those were real tourists. The small shop selling religious artefacts was hardly doing any business at all.

Most of the visitors appeared to be there to pray. I think I saw more people inside the chapel than anywhere else.

It is striking to see how strongly the Thomas tradition has taken hold in the region. The tradition is at least as old as the Acts of Thomas which tells the story of the apostle's pilgrimage to India, at first with great reluctance.

St Thomas Mount itself offers very little by way of explanatory history. I didn't see a single placard giving anything of the apostle's story. His connection with the location is simply taken for granted.

A colourful statue of Thomas, with a gold, red and pink garment greets the pilgrim towards the top of the steps. He holds in his hand a book open to the words "My Lord, My God" (John 20.28). This is the first time we see these words, but then they appear again and again all over the shrine.

Once at the top of the mount, one of the more striking features is a tall, golden crucifix, on the far side of the mount, overlooking the city.

Just below it, as one looks down towards the city, the words "My Lord, My God" are spelled out in white stones.

The central piece is the church itself, which stands with a bronze relief of the Last Supper above its door. Once again, "My Lord, My God" are repeated here.

The chapel has an entrance called "the door of mercy", again with "My Lord and My God" over it, and a recent (2011) statue of Jesus and Thomas several feet in front of it.

Inside the chapel, there are individual pictures of the twelve apostles, right down to Thaddaeus, surely the more overlooked of the twelve!

I was perhaps a touch disappointed that the mount was so thoroughly focused on the one passage in John 20 and that there was so little influence from texts like the Acts of Thomas, and remarkably little on the apostle's connection with India.

One of the only depictions of Thomas not taken from John 20 is this scene of the apostle praying. It appears after the door of mercy on the entry into the chapel, opposite a depiction of Thomas and Jesus drawn from John 20. of the only depictions of Thomas not taken from John 20 is this scene of the apostle praying. It appears after the door of mercy on the entry into the chapel, opposite a depiction of Thomas and Jesus drawn from John 20.

There is also a convent on top of the mount. It speaks rather invitingly of "cool drinks" but nothing was on offer when I entered, and although there were several people in there, they appeared to be deep in their own conversations.

Elsewhere on the mount there is a stall that sells souvenirs but they were not really to my taste -- the kinds of garish mini-statues of Thomas and of Jesus that one would only buy to prove that one has visited the site.

There are loos just around the corner from the convent but it has to be said that they are a touch on the primitive side, perhaps dating back in time to when Thomas first visited India.

Overall, though, St Thomas Mount is well worth a visit. If you're anywhere near Chennai airport, it's a pretty short journey. Unless I missed it, disability access is poor to non-existent, so it is sadly only for those who can tackle the walk.

Although there are not that many steps, you may find yourself puffing and panting a bit (as you hear on my podcast), especially if you go along, as I did, during the heat of the day.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

2016 Clark Lectures with Loveday Alexander

One of the great traditions at Duke is the annual series of Clark Lectures. Duke has hosted many fine scholars and some great lectures, and this year is no exception. This year's Clark Lectures feature Dr Loveday Alexander:

2016 Clark Lectures with Loveday Alexander
Duke Divinity School will hold the 2016 annual Clark Lectures with guest speaker Loveday Alexander, emeritus professor of Biblical studies at Sheffield University in England. Alexander will lecture on "Is Luke a Historian? Writing the History of the Early Church," and will give a second lecture on the topic on March 2 from 12:20 to 1:20 p.m. in 0012 Westbrook. The lectures are free and open to the public.
More at the link above.