Mountain shrines have a certain charm. Even small climbs (Uchi-pillayar in Trichy, for instance) give you a high; first, there’s an offering of physical effort from our side and then there is a reward from above: the darshan and the panoramic view. Even at an altitude of 300 feet, one feels more spiritual than at MSL. That’s what happened to me yesterday. After several decades in Namma Chennai, I visited the Church at St. Thomas Mount, for the first time.
It was the unwritten SOP in my department that we seek divine blessings before we start every major project. My team has certain socio-ethnic diversity, and in my eagerness to establish my credentials as a secular manager (surely, it beats the claims of “secular politicians” who only hog at Iftaar parties?), I proposed that we make our offerings at St. Thomas Church for the current project. I must have had a million potential opportunities to go there, but apparently that day was that pre-ordained day.
It was late afternoon when we visited the place, but there was a cool breeze that evaporated the heat. Atop the hill, the panoramic view of the sun-soaked city was wonderful. The Church itself is an amazing amalgam of at least 2 styles: the inner sanctum was built by the Portuguese, circa 1575 but the façade, built by the Armenians, is more recent (circa 1700). The exterior of the church has matt-finish walls painted spotless white, like the Greek churches. There is an understated beauty in the place. The Chingleput diocese has done a marvelous job in creating the right ambience.
As you walk in, more surprises. First you need to remove footwear when you enter (very Hindu). The altar has a kuttu vilakku (very South Indian) and on the side there is a smaller icon showing a visibly pregnant Mother Mary. I have never seen Mother Mary portrayed thus, and had assumed (wrongly) that it was contrary to the tradition of Immaculate Conception). There is a very caring guide who is eager to educate us. He does a wonderful job, though he is oblivious to these ironies. When he narrates, he checks if we are non-Christians (so that he can explain Christian lore); he is politically correct when he says that St Thomas was murdered by enemies. He doesn’t say that his killers were underlings of Mylapore Brahmans (he probably senses that would have meant my relatives).
The shrine honours Senhora da Expectacao (Portuguese for Our Lady of Expectation — one who fulfills our aspirations). Our guide, clearly of Anglo-Indian descent, pronounces it SenHora da Expektakkao. Anu (who has the benefit of Portuguese education) nudges and whispers “it is pronounced Senyora d’ expectasaon”. On the altar is a bas-relief of a cross on a rock with Pahlavi inscriptions (Pahlavi is an ancient Persian script of Aramaic origin— I find that from Wikipedia later). It is said that this cross oozed blood on Dec 18th every year, till 1745.
There is also a Madonna painting done by St. Luke himself. Tradition has it that St. Thomas valued this work of his brother-apostle so much that he carried it on his person all the time. The guide narrated stories connected with it (how a local king removed it, but was influenced to return it because of a dream his wife had; how a local artist who was asked to restore it, arrogantly tried to paint a fresh piece and was blinded; how, recently, a husband prayed to Madonna and his infertile wife conceived….) . The stories may or may not be apocryphal, but it is truly a world heritage item of tremendous historic value and it is in Namma Chennai!
We offer a silent prayer and light a candle and leave.
Long time Chennaivaasis: did you know that the hillock is so large that it also houses a school, a seminary, a cemetery and a Police Radio station? I didn’t! English experts: did you know where the expression “doubting Thomas” came from? St. Thomas refused to believe that Christ had resurrected from the dead. When he saw Jesus again, St. Thomas poked him and sensed him in flesh and blood, before he believed. I didn’t know this either!
* Glossary: Chennai-vasi means citizen of Chennai