In 52 A.D., so it is said, St Thomas – one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ – landed at the Malabar Coast (the South-west Coast) of India, and travelled across the sub-continent to the ancient (and magnificent) port city of Mylapore on the Coromandel Coast (the coast of what is today’s Tamil Nadu).
There, he preached the word of God by the waters of the Bay of Bengal, and atop a hill which bears his name today. The St Thomas Christians of South India – an ancient Christian denomination using Syriac as their liturgical language – also owe their name to him.
St Thomas was struck down – so it is said – in 72 A.D. and buried by the shore. A small shrine and church was built over his grave. This would be torn down and replaced by the Nestorian Christians at the turn of the 1st millenium; by the Portuguese in the 15th century, and finally by the British in the 19th century.
Santhome was the Portuguese settlement that emerged and huddled around the Portuguese church of St Thomas near the Mylapore shore. Today, it continues to bear the name Santhome, despite the settlement being absorbed into British Madras, and then Madras itself being renamed the city of Chennai by an Independent Republic of India.
The Basilica of San Thome, as it stands today, is a soaring Neo-Gothic confection built by the British in 1896. It is holds the distinction as one of a handful of Basilicas in the world that hold the remains of one of the Twelve Apostles, the most notable being St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.
Santhome is a small Christian enclave in the larger Hindu city of Mylapore, which has existed for millenia along the Coromandel Coast, and – so it is also said – was the major port city from which Tamil merchants took their culture and language across the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia.
Certainly, Mylapore today is still home to some of the most important Hindu temples in the city of Madras, with some of the most impressive and breath-taking gopurams I had ever seen.
The most important of these temples is the Kapaleeswarar Temple, which, in its present form, dates from the early 18th century; but has existed on the site from at least the 7th century. A visit to the temple is essential for a first-hand account of just how important a religion Hinduism continues to be in (Southern) India, and to appreciate the distinctive architecture of the Tamils.
Santhome / Mylapore
St Thomas Mount
- K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer, 2003. Madras – The Architectural Heritage. An INTACH Guide. Chennai: INTACH. This is an EXCELLENT and INDISPENSABLE resource and I couldn’t have done the city without this.
- S. Muthiah, 2008. Madras Rediscovered. Chennai: Westland Limited.