Metropolitan Chennai is a historical accident. Chennai, as a big city, is here because the British were desperate enough for a beachhead in southern India even if what they got wasn’t a natural port.
In Tamil Nadu, Thanjavur and Madurai have a more distinguished history than Chennai, one would think.
But Chennai does have a grand story, one that doesn’t get the play it deserves — the story of St. Thomas.
The story that one of the direct disciples of Jesus Christ, and an apostle, visited Chennai and died here (the San Thome Church site being his tomb) would add grandeur to the city, if not enhance its history.
The Portuguese ‘discovered’ St. Thomas’s tomb and promoted the idea — a fact that makes sceptics see a colonial motive. The charge is that the Portuguese, through St. Thomas, wanted to give their religion a local, historical standing. But Saint Thomas Christians in Kerala are inheritors of a tradition that predates the colonial era by well over a thousand years. St. Thomas in India is a story that has little to do with the colonial project.
Despite the questions about the historicity of St. Thomas in Chennai, I feel the city has enough reasons to own him.
The story of doubting Thomas is the classic question of human existence — doubt vs. faith and how lack of faith, conviction if you will, may well lead to insufficient involvement in life itself.
The story of St. Thomas is most people’s life story too, in a sense. Just as St. Thomas moved on from that place of doubt and threw himself into what he considered his life’s mission, some of us find our calling in life, and a passionate involvement.
It may be a curious coincidence that doubting Thomas’s Chennai always seems to hold back from identifying totally with anything. Most Chennaiites would struggle to really define the city.
Chennai could do well for itself, however, by imbibing St. Thomas’s spirit of faith and conviction. And make its mark as a world-class modern city. From doubt, hesitation and seemingly without a purpose, Chennai could forge ahead if we, as residents, can figure out how best to ensure basic civic amenities for all and a high quality of life.
Chennai could take the lead in providing residents clean water 24X7, more tree cover, an efficient and environment-friendly garbage handling and disposal system, and a law-abiding, streamlined traffic.
Chennai’s passion could be to find a unique place for itself as the Indian city that works