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St. Thomas and the city

San Thome Basilica, Santhome

San Thome Basilica, Santhome  

San Thome Basilica, Santhome

In a city with many churches known for their antiquity, history, religious significance and architectural grandeur, this one stands tall. Its imposing neo-Gothic design is enhanced by a series of spires, with the tallest rising to 155 ft.

The colossal central area, stunning stained-glass murals and life-size portraits inside, and the slender towers and pinnacles outside, make it a huge tourist attraction.

But, the cathedral’s significance goes beyond architectural beauty. The basilica is one of the three places associated with St. Thomas in Chennai. Legend has it that he landed in India in 52 CE and established churches on the West Coast before heading to the Coromandal coast and Madras. After his martyrdom in 72 CE, his disciples buried him in Santhome, and the church came up on the spot.

Wrote Marco Polo: “It is in this province, which is styled the Greater India, at the gulf between Ceylon and the mainland, that the body of Messer St. Thomas lies, at a certain town having no great population.” The Portuguese arrived in the 16th Century, were shown the tomb by Armenian merchants, excavated it in 1523, found a few relics and rebuilt the shrine.

By 1893, the church, again in disrepair, was demolished to give way for the present one. In 1956, the church was declared a minor Basilica. In 2002, in a further renovation, a new passage to the tomb from outside and a museum of St. Thomas memorabilia were added. The spear that killed the saint, stones that have deeds of St. Thomas etched on them, and two postage stamps are part of the collection.

The cathedral became a centre of conversation when the tsunami that devastated areas all around left the newly-renovated church untouched. Folklore has it that St. Thomas had mounted a log of wood at the top of the steps leading to the Cathedral saying the sea would not pass that point. People believe this “miraculous post” kept the sea away that fateful day.

Little Mount

The story of St. Thomas’ association with Chennai begins in a tiny cave in Little Mount (Chinnamalai) at Saidapet. The apostle is believed to have lived and preached here. The cave’s mouth is about 5 feet in height and one-and-a-half feet in width. Another opening supposedly leads to a tunnel through which the apostle is believed to have escaped his assailants. The clear palmprint near the tunnel’s entrance and the footprint at the foot of the hillock are believed to be those of St. Thomas. The freshwater spring nearby is supposed to have appeared miraculously to quench the thirst of his followers.

A portrait of St. Thomas, a Portuguese inscription, a tiny church built by the Portuguese in 1551 and a masonry cross at the top of the hill add to the place’s importance. A new circular modern church dedicated to our Lady of Health, has been built to commemorate the 19th Century of St. Thomas’ martyrdom.

St. Thomas Mount

A flight of 160 steps, built by the Armenian merchant Coja Petrus Uscan, leads to the top of St. Thomas Mount. Here you get to see what is believed to be a piece of St. Thomas’ bone and the “bleeding” cross, that legend says was carved by St. Thomas himself. It is while he was praying before it that he is said to have been martyred, and it was stained with his blood. This Cross was discovered in the 16th Century by workers digging to lay the foundation for the Church. People believe it sweated blood on December 18 every year from 1551 to 1704 AD.

Also, look for the picture of Our Lady or the Scapular of St. Thomas, said to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist and brought here by St. Thomas.

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