The Myth Of St. Thomas: Part One

The legend of Thomas’ Martyrdom in the hands of Brahmins has its origin an ignorant and intentional misreading of an inscription.

In an article recently published by Haaretz, it has been claimed that Saint Thomas was murdered by jealous Brahmin priests of Kali with the headline– 72 CE: Thomas the Apostle Is Murdered in India. The official website of Saint Thomas(Santhome) church states-

St Thomas, one of the twelve Apostles of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, walked on the sands of Mylapore and preached the Gospel to the people who embraced Christianity. This great Apostle was martyred on St Thomas Mount, near Mylapore in the year 72 AD and his mortal remains were buried in Santhome in the Church built by him….

The claims are summarised as follows

  1. Saint Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Christ, came to India in 52 AD.
  2. He preached gospel and converted a lot of people.
  3. The jealous Hindu Brahmin priests killed him by piercing him with spears.
  4. His relics are still enshrined in Santhome church in Mylapore, Madras.

The first part of our article concerns itself solely with the third claim. We trace the historical origin and formation of the legend that Saint Thomas was killed by jealous Brahmin priests.

The Portuguese Crusade

As soon as they reached Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese announced that they were looking for spices and “Christians” .  In Kerala, the Portuguese encountered Christians who were mostly known as “Syrians” and  “Thomas Christians”.  The search for “Christians” was obviously a justification and legitimization of future conquests. The Portuguese could simply portray  their future conquests as a crusade to reconquer  lost Christian lands. The Portuguese also  claimed that  conquest of non-Christian lands was an accomplishment that could closely precedent  last Judgement. Portuguese historian Ameal sums up the Portuguese age of expansion as follows-

Wherever the Portuguese fleet cast anchor in the past, barbarity disappeared while the idols of tyranny, hatred, and gold were replaced by the cross of Christ. No colonization was more beautiful and noble….

Thus, it is clear that Portuguese conquest/expansion and Christianization went hand in hand.

India and Christianity

The tales of “Thomas in India” were well known throughout Europe in the medieval age. Hagiographical Latin works on Saint Thomas such as Flos sanctorumDe miraculis beati Thomae apostoli and Passio Sancti Thomae were well known in literary circles. These Latin works were not a faithful translation of the original Christian apocryphal scripture, Acts of Thomas, but further reworkings of it.

Given this background, it is no surprise that as early as 1507, the Portuguese  Viceroy Almeida sent out a preliminary expedition to south  to look for the tomb of St Thomas the Apostle . As observed, any discovery of St. Thomas would legitimise their conquests.  However, the first mission was a total failure and Portuguese failed to find what they were looking for.

 Thomas Legends procured from native “Thomas” Christians

As a part of this grand project,  Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa  completed his work “Geographical compendium of Portuguese Asia”(c.1518). He provided his account of the life and death of St. Thomas in India by reproducing the oral stories of the St. Thomas Christians from the region  of Kollam(Kerala).

This account of  St. Thomas in India, based on the oral stories, was full of myths. Relevant to us, however, is a striking reference on the “martyrdom” of saint Thomas. The miracle worker Thomas transformed himself into a peacock and wandered around. A low caste govi hunter shot at it. The hunter was shocked when the peacock retransformed itself into its original form of Saint Thomas.

Thus,in the earliest legends of Thomas Christians, St. Thomas was killed not by jealous Brahmins  but by a low caste hunter who mistook him for a peacock. The legend of transformation of Thomas into peacock prior to his accidental death at the hands of a hunter  was also noted centuries earlier by Marco Polo(1296)  who collected his legends from the accounts of local Christians.

We pause and ask, why did Barbosa rely on the local accounts of St. Thomas Christians to reconstruct the history and martyrdom of St. Thomas? The Acts of Thomas which talked about martyrdom of Thomas in “India” was an old Apocryphal Biblical text. As noted, the Europeans had their own medieval accounts of Thomas’ martyrdom.

The Portuguese considered St. Thomas Christians as “heretics” and “Nestorians” and would soon force the Catholic religion upon them. Why did the Portuguese adopt late mythical foreign accounts of Hinduised “heretics” and discard their own versions of Thomas legend?

The answer lies in the fact that the Apocryphal text Acts of Thomas(written 3rd century) was never received very well in Christendom. As early as 310 AD, foremost early Christian  historian and bishop Eusebius classified apocryphal acts as “heretical works” written by the “wicked and impious”.

Epiphanus of Salamis( 370AD) testified that Acts of Thomas were used  by the “heretic Encratites”.   After protestant reformations, the Catholics began a counter reformation movement and embraced stricter orthodoxy. The Acts would soon be condemned in the Catholic Council of Trent(1548 AD).  Although not  translations, the medieval works on saints were still based on Acts. Hence, even these works were  considered “unorthodox”.

There is also another reason for discarding the western legends. According to the Acts of Thomas, the body of St. Thomas was taken to the West after his death.Ephraim the Syrian(d.377) mentioned that the body of Thomas was venerated in Edessa(Syria) .

Gregory of Tours (583-594) evoked the Syrian tradition in shifting St.Thomas’s burial from India to Edessa. By 1258,it was taken to Ortona, Italy where the skeleton of St. Thomas  is venerated to this day. The Vatican also acknowledged these relics of “Thomas” with “deed of verification” meaning that the Christendom considers it to be the ‘real skeleton’ of St. Thomas.

Even  in the widely  read Travels of Sir John Mandeville(c.1499), it was stated that Thomas’ body was taken to Edessa(Syria, now Turkey) from India after his death.  Had Portuguese adopted the old western legends of Thomas, they could not have claimed any Thomas grave  in India. But as we have noted before, this was crucial for legitimization of their conquests.

 Geographical expansion of the site

In 1517, Armenian merchants came to the rescue of the Portuguese. They talked about a sepulchre of St. Thomas and persuaded a group of Portuguese returning from Melakka to travel to a  site in Mylapore reputed to be St. Thomas’ tomb. When they arrived, what they found were partially ruined  temples.  Below we quote description of what the Portuguese saw when they arrived at supposed tomb of St. Thomas in Mylapore-

They found a vast expanse covered with buildings, for most part in ruins. Amongst these ancient remains were gopuras, towers, columns, stones covered with sculptures representing foliage, human figures, animals, birds of such exquisite workmanship that they could not have been finer even wrought in silver

They found that the tomb  was visited by heathens(Hindus) and Moors(Muslims), in addition to local Christians. Even Marco Polo had written centuries earlier that the tomb used to be  visited by “Saracens(Muslims) and Christians.”

The tomb itself was managed by a Muslim who claimed it to be a tomb of a Muslim saint from Ethiopia. However, the presence of  temples at the place of St. Thomas’ martyrdom should not have come as a surprise to Portuguese. Consider a more than century older testimony of Christian monk Odoric of Udine who recalled a visit he had made  to this Tomb in 1322.

His church is filled with idols and beside it are fifteen houses of the Nestorians, that is to say Christians, but vile and pestilential heretics

These  Jesuit historians claim  that this had been a temple of a Jogi which was appropriated by Thomas himself. But they are only partially correct. It was indeed a temple of a Jogi, but it is the Portuguese, not Thomas, who have appropriated it.They also found footprints which they considered to be those of St. Thomas. However, veneration of footprints is a Hindu-Jain-Buddhist practice.

We have further testimony from Manual Gomes, a Portuguese who took part in the expedition. They saw another tomb, which, they were sure, was  that of St. Matthew the apostle and alleged author of canonical gospel.

The Portuguese then began reconstruction  of this site, now called “St. Thomas chapel”. The tombs were opened one after the other and their bones exhumed. The Tamil inscription of what had until now been considered “St. Matthew’s Tomb” read as “tane mudaliar” and was found to be that of a Chola ruler. The Portuguese took a massive U turn.

Now, St. Matthew’s tomb became that of Chola ruler who had been a  “disciple” of St. Thomas. It did not matter to them that the Chola ruler and St Thomas were separated by a time frame of 12 centuries. The tomb of “St. Thomas” was also exhumed. Among the finds was a wooden shaft of St. Thomas which miraculously survived for 15 centuries.

The Portuguese began their project  and built churches all over the place. Retired Portuguese traders and Jesuit priests began to settle in Mylapore. A large number of locals were converted and a Christian colony in Mylapore was now a fact.

Brahminic(Jesuit?) reconstruction of Thomas’ Myth

The tomb of St. Thomas was located on Little Mount(chinna malai) of Mylapore. The Portuguese also constructed a chapel on Big Mount(Periya Malai) to the south east of tomb. One day, during an excavation on the Big Mount,  the Portuguese claimed to have come across an exciting find. They suddenly found  a cross with small “drops of blood” on its surface. They also found an inscription on it. They invited a learned Brahmin named Pingali Suranna to decipher the inscription. Suranna translated it much to the delight of Portuguese which read as follows-

During the time of the Sagamo laws, Thomas the divine man was sent by the Son of God (whose disciple he was) to these countries to lead the people of this nation to the knowledge of God, and he erected a temple and performed miracles and finally, while he was praying on his knees before this cross, he was pierced by a Brahman’s spear and this cross was tinged with his blood for eternal memory…..

It should be mentioned that this version of Thomas’ Martyrdom corresponds to the version Jesuit priests knew from their books such as Acts of Thomas. There is however an important difference. In the Acts of Thomas, Thomas was killed by the king because he  converted the queen and instructed her not to have any sexual intercourse with the king.  It seems Jesuits  wanted to implicate Brahmins and localise the myth. It is interesting that Suranna words come across as though from a Jesuit’s mouth.

Now, the Thomas legend underwent major reconstructions. It wasn’t a peacock hunter who accidentally killed Thomas but a Brahmin who intentionally committed the deed. The Little mount(cinna malai) was no longer the resting place of Thomas. Thomas was pierced by a spear on the Little mount after which he fled to the Big Mount, finally dying there, clasping the cross. The Big Mount was now the final resting place of Thomas, as it is until today.

One wonders how the Brahmin Suranna was able to read the indecipherable inscription. Brahmins were trained in Vedas and traditional sciences such as mathematics(Ganita), astrology and Ayurveda, but not linguistic epigraphy. The Brahmins with all their knowledge had no idea what Brahmi script was.

Thanks to James Princep the epigraphist who deciphered Brahmi in 1837, we are in a much better position to understand Indian history.  Now we now know what was inscribed on the cross, thanks to modern day Epigraphists. The inscription is in Pahlavi. It is dated to circa. 8th century CE. It read-

My Lord Christ, have pity on Afras, son of Chaharbukt the Syrian, who has carved this….

As we see, there is no mention of any St. Thomas, let alone his Martydom. Thus, the legend of Thomas’ Martyrdom in the hands of Brahmins has its origin an ignorant and intentional misreading of an inscription.

It is most likely, that the inscription was brought from Goa and deliberately planted it on the mount.Recently,a similar inscription was found at Goa. We will talk about this in great detail in the next part.