Friday, 27 February 2009

Chennai Steeple Chase - February 2009

In the footsteps of St Thomas

I attended Egmore Wesley Church in the morning for the 8:30 service.  Doors and windows were open in the airy church Fans whirled over head, Simple décor of whitewashed walls, stained glass (patterns not pictures) no wall plaques. two large Chandeliers. Pastor Leanard preached on ‘God is your lover’ to a packed church. More exhortation than encouragement, with a strong an emphasis on obligatory rather than optional obedience. Communion was wafers and individual glasses of juice at the communion rail. I was somewhat distracted by a second collection which seemed intrusive. But I was surprised and uplifted by the choir singing an anthem Mozart’s ‘Ave Serum Corpus’ . They were very good.

Afterwards over chai/tea chatting to members of the congregation I asked about places to see in Chennai, One person suggested a ‘steeplechase’ of the historical churches and the different influences on Madras/Chennai: Mount St Thomas, Little Mount, San Thom Basilica St Mary’s chapel in Fort St George The Armenian Church at Paris corner, Portuguese Luz Church and Scottish St Andrew’s Kirk. There were plenty of options.

Back at the CSI guesthouse I found a taxi driver who could take and along with Victor, a young internet professional from a Telagu background, who had taken me to Egmore Church in the first place, I spent an enjoyable afternoon evening racing around Chennai visiting 4 out of the 8 churches.

Little Mount

St Thomas reached Muziri around 51-52 AD having established 7 churches in Kerala. He converted King of Maliapore (Madras) He was martyred in AD 72.The Church of our Lady of Health, built in 1551 by the Portuguese, Is situated on a small mount about 80 feet above sea level Known in Tamil as 'Chinna Malai' and Portuguese as ‘Monte Poquino”

In the grounds, a DisneyWorld style Via Dolorosa (way of the cross) to walk and interact with statue tableaus of the Stations of the Cross.. This was a pilgrimage that anyone could make. It was visual, colourful and compelling. A young man knelt in devout prayer at the foot of the cross. Two young boys were running around flying a kite. A woman sat under a large sign in English and Tamil declaring Thomas’s mantra: ‘My Lord and My God’ 

St. Thomas is remembered as the Apostle of India.   Here is a cave where he sheltered and another small cave where he before an ancient carved cross. There is a red ‘footprint’ for devotees to touch and water from a Spring to drink - the same spring that succoured Thomas. 
It is a place to walk the way, to pray. to mediate, even to picnic. To express very practically and tacitly the faith. 

I thought it was very appropriate at the site of the so called doubting apostle Thomas. ‘Unless I touch … smell…. feel, I will not believe’. Here faith is made physical.  

St. Thomas Mount Shrine

Called ‘Phirangi’ in the vernacular and ‘Monte Grande’ in Portuguese, the Mount lies 300 feet above sea level. It is the scene of St Tomas’s martyrdom,  On the way up we passed the ‘brothers of the Sacred heart’ and ‘St Thomas Retreat House’, ‘a place for retreat and pilgrimage’

Outside a statue where people could pose for photos, like Madam Toussauds,  Mother Theresa was particularly popular with women.   When I visited no-one was posing with the Pope
The church contains a simple shrine an ancient 'weeping' cross, a Madonna and child painting supposedly by St Luke himself, a relic containing fragment of bones of St Thomas.  

We were allowed surprisingly close right into the sanctuary itself and photography was encouraged. In that we differed from Medieval pilgrims.  

Afterwards we had a cold drink of Mango juice in the convent which runs a baby’s home, with cheap tacky religious souvenirs. I picked up a copy of a book 'In the Steps of St Thomas' by Rev Herman D’Souza (Siga Madras 2008)  

San Thome de Melipor Tomb and museum

The Catholics do things well and on a big scale.   The church was large – a basilica - and a wedding was happening inside. It was full of life and noise.

At the back of the Church a museum with artefacts connected with Xavier and Thomas. In particular ancient stone crosses and a double sided stone with Thomas on one side and his convert Kandapa Raja, Gondaphores, the King of Mylapore on the other.

There was also an underground shrine above the supposed burial site. Devotees knelt in reverent prayer before their Indian apostle.  And a very graphic scene depicting his murder , stabbed in the back by a spear as he knelt in a garden in prayer (before an ancient cross. An almost Gethsemane like betrayal.

St Mary’s Church in St George’s Fort

This was the most difficult to find since it is located within was the military fort now the Tamil Nadu secretariat.   We were well past the closure time but the lady guard took pity on me, when she knew I couldn’t return the next day and let us in to see the church from the outside.

We had to walk around old camp buildings to get to the Church itself. Built in 1680, this is oldest church east of Suez. Clive of India was married here and the founder of Yale also worshipped here.  I would have loved to see the plaques inside but we had to be content to look at the gardens though iron railings and get an idea of the shape. A Military museum was also closed but a statue of Cornwallis was clearly visible through the doors.  And ancient canon  upon the walls, (including some from Sind ) completed the image of Christianity as a colonial religion. Mission backed by military gunboats.

Which I suppose is why the St Thomas narrative is so important. His arrival in India predates Xavier and the Portuguese in the 15th century and the British East India Company in the 18th and 19th century.  

I find it ironic that he who doubted most, travelled furthest with the gospel. But then the Great Commission was given to all believers including the doubters (Matt 28:17)

1 comment:

Tikhtak said...

Hey Phil,

Irfana and I visited Chennai and Thomas' hangouts when we went to the Asian Yoth conference in Bangalore back in 2005. The Steeple chase sounds great! One night we went down on the beach and it was absolutely heaving with families and food sellers. Good old Chennai