Re-imagining St Thomas the Apostle’s epic backpacker adventure in the south India of 50-70 AD


I jump off the bus in the coastal Kerala town of Kodungallur. As far as I can make out I’m the only tourist here, which is a relief considering how Kerala tends to be overrun with backpackers and rich foreigners in search of ayurvedic rejuvenation. But I am soon to learn that thousands of years ago Kodungallur was as infested with foreigners as any beach resort is today.

Walking past the typical small-town businesses — laminators and pharmacies, a biriyani joint called City Restaurant, an Internet café offering ‘100% Job Oriented Computer Courses’, the Sitara Beauty Collection that sells gift items, the Cranganore Muziris Bakery, and showrooms for Sansui and Sony home entertainment products — I sense an overall vibe of comfort. A neat little town.

It’s a little hard to believe, but this humble municipality was once a royal capital of the mighty Chera kings, who were very welcoming to people from the West. Even though the Chera dynasty lent their name to the modern State, Kerala, there are no remains of their palace except a jungly compound known as Cheraman Parambu to the east of town. A rickshaw driver offers to take me there and the place is so tucked away that he has to stop and ask for directions time and again.

I’ve read archaeological descriptions of the spacious palaces for emperors, mansions for their ministers, shrines for their gods, and halls and theatres. Now, nothing is left. I take a walk and poke around a bit when I hear children scream at me. They make strange, swaying gestures with their hands. As I listen carefully, I make out what they’re shouting:

‘King Cobra! Watch out! King Cobra!’

Scrambling off and stage-diving into the waiting rickshaw, I consider the astonishing fact (once I’ve caught my breath, that is) that there is still a ‘king’ living in the compound.

Having paid my respects to the kings of yore, I move on to explore other sights: a mosque, a temple and a church. These turn out to be pretty modern structures, but their traditions go way back. For example, the small Cheraman Juma Masjid is said to have been founded during the prophet’s lifetime, making it one of the few mosques in the world with such an ancient pedigree. It is believed to have been converted from an abandoned Buddhist monastery gifted by a Chera king to Arab traders, possibly in return for helping make his port so prosperous. Therefore, the Cheraman mosque was named to honour the king. By 629 AD, when the original mosque was inaugurated, this had been a vital harbour for hundreds of years.

While modern Kodungallur barely warrants a mention in travel guides today, it was prominently marked out on ancient European maps (such as the Peutinger Table) and featured in Roman-era guidebooks (like Periplus of the Erythrean Sea) under its old name Muziris. Remarkably, these sources suggest that somewhere around here stood a Roman temple hallowed to the Emperor Augustus, under whose reign the Kerala pepper trade grew so big that two Indian embassies visited Augustus’ court in the BC 20s. Of that temple, however, archaeologists have found no trace — unless it happens to be the same temple that became a Buddhist shrine and, later, the Cheraman mosque.

Another temple site of great interest is the town’s famous shakti shrine, Sri Bhagavathi Amman, a little to the south of the market — extremely ancient and linked to Kannaki, the heroine of the Tamil epic The Jewelled Anklet. After her husband was executed on trumped-up charges of theft, the faithful Kannaki tore off one breast and hurled it at Madurai, with the result that the entire city went up in flames. She then spent her last years by the river at Kodungallur, where locals started worshipping her, and this story was eventually noted down by Ilanko Atikal, a poet dating to sometime during 1-6th Century AD who either lived in, or at least visited Kodungallur. Interestingly, this epic also describes Yavanas (presumed to mean Ionians — that is, Aegean Greeks) who, in those days, lived in various south Indian cities while pursuing their global trade interests.

A remarkable painting of Kannaki, rattling her jewelled anklet accusingly over her head, hangs inside the shrine. The day I visit, the annual spring ritual is taking place and female oracles dressed in red, some sporting impressive dreadlocks, gather around to dance until they fall into trance, shaking scary scimitars. I am momentarily transported back to Kannaki’s time of heroic ladies.

Returning to my senses, I hop into another rickshaw that takes me a few kilometres away to Azhikode village and its church crowned by a silvery onion dome, Mar Thoma Shrine, which commands a stunning view over the slowly flowing Periyar river’s mouth. The shrine is very sacred as it contains a relic of Thomas the Apostle, who arrived on this very riverfront by ship in 52 AD.

A small quay marks the presumed landing spot and, who knows, this too could have been the site of the ancient Roman temple. After all, sacred spots tend to remain sacred, even if the religions of people change.

The relic on display behind bullet-proof glass is a bone fragment — a couple of inches of the ulna bone of an upper arm — perhaps the most famous arm in Christian history. Thomas was, as is well known, the apostle who doubted the resurrection until Jesus himself requested him to touch his crucifixion wounds. From there arises the common phrase ‘doubting Thomas’, meaning ‘a habitually disbelieving or suspicious person’. I sit by the shrine, sheltering from the midday heat, and wonder: Who was this Thomas, really?

Beyond doubt, he is perhaps the first Western traveller that we know of — at least by name — who came to south India. Other than that, it is often said that very little is known about the apostle’s travels, but at the souvenir stall outside the shrine I find a bulky Thomapedia in two volumes which compiles all the stories and facts about Thomas and his Indian legacy. Leafing through it, I realise that though he is known more as a revered saint than a hardy voyager, Thomas was indeed one of the most widely travelled men of his times.

The story begins about a decade or so after the crucifixion, when the 12 apostles divided the known world between them by drawing lots. Upon Thomas fell the duty to go to India, which was far outside the Roman empire.

According to reports, Thomas again felt doubtful, claiming ‘weakness of the flesh’ and blurting out: ‘How can I, a Hebrew man, go and preach among the Indians? Send me anywhere but not to India.’

His protests were to no avail, and to get him the cheapest possible transport (after all, the religion was new and didn’t command much funding yet) he was sold to an Indian merchant, possibly of the Jewish faith, called Abbanes or Habban.

Looking for a carpenter on behalf of a Gandhara king, Habban purchased Thomas for approximately 49,000 worth of silver (in current monetary value), and what follows for Thomas would count as quite a backpacker adventure.

Many episodes from this epic journey are tantalisingly described in Acts of Thomas, a text which isn’t part of the official Bible but which, according to the scholars writing in the Thomapedia, has enough authentic details of Indian customs — such as ladies being carried in palanquins and noblemen taking a bath before partaking dinner — for us to believe it to be at least partially true. Like all traveller’s tales tend to be.

His journey probably started, properly, from a Red Sea port, from which they sailed to Parthia, a region now in Iran. From there they crossed into today’s Pakistan, and via the Punjab Thomas travelled on Rajasthani caravan routes to the mouth of the Indus river. Subsequently, he hopped aboard a ship to approximately Mumbai, which didn’t exist in those days though two prominent ancient ports, Sopara and Kalyan, are part of suburban Mumbai. Sopara — nowadays known as Nalasopara towards the end of the suburban train line northwards — is mentioned as far back as in the Old Testament, where it is called Ophir, the port from which biblical kings imported foreign luxury goods; so Thomas very likely passed through there — especially since he would presumably have turned to the Old Testament for guidance.

Since road travel was impractical as there weren’t many back then, Thomas sailed southwards until he finally landed at the spot I’m standing at in Kerala in 52 AD, on November 21, and he’d have been roughly 50 years of age, which curiously enough is my own age as I write this.

At that time, the trading links between Kerala and Israel were old — in fact, King Solomon had even imported construction material for his temple at Jerusalem in 961 BC, more than a thousand years before Thomas’s arrival. It is thought that the first settlement of Jews in India was established in Kodungallur hundreds of years before the year 0, and so Thomas would have found accommodation in the town’s Jewish quarters. All that is left today is a stone hidden by the river’s northern bank, commemorating a batch of 400 Jewish refugees: ‘To the memory of the Knanaya Jewish-Christian ancestors who immigrated in AD 345 from Babylonia to Kodungallur. Knai Thoma their lay-leader built a town and a church dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle on the land donated by Cheraman Perumal. On the same site, about 500 metres from here now exists the ruined Portuguese fortress administered by the Kerala state department of archaeology.’

Incidentally, the leader of these Christians and Jews is said to have been a merchant prince of Edessa (in Turkey), so it appears that in the 4th Century, the congregation that Thomas had started here got a welcome boost of newcomers.

While there is no Jewish area in Kodungallur today, one does find a Jewish bazaar at Mattancherry, in Kochi, with its own grand synagogue (16th Century), which gives an idea of what Kodungallur may have been like — rows of warehouses and the air heavy with the scents of pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves and turmeric.

It is interesting to note that at a time when Europeans fed Christians to the lions in Roman arenas for public entertainment, people in Kerala were tolerant and curious enough about the new faith that Thomas brought with him, enough for him to gather many converts — especially among women.

According to the Thomapedia, the apostle was invited to stay in Kerala by Prince Kepha of the royal family. Perhaps not so surprising, after all, since ancient sources mention that the harbour abounded in ships manned by Greeks, Arabs and maybe even a sprinkling of Romans. Yes, Kodungallur was the place to be, and whatever worries Thomas may have had about being a lone Hebrew among Indians were laid to rest — there were plenty of Jews living all over Kerala, in the harbours and in the main inland trading towns, engaged in selling and money-lending. Foreign coin hoards found here and there attest to this.

Here, a floating population of alien sailors waited around for the monsoon winds to turn so they could sail back, hanging out in the inns of the town, staying up late at night, talking in strange tongues, presumably having imbibed much of the wine carried onboard. And they shopped like mad. Archaeologists have found Roman coin hoards not only in Kerala but also central Tamil Nadu, and even Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, far to the north, suggesting that this commercial network was extensive.

Recently, during excavations south of Kodungallur, in Pattanam village, parts of an ancient brick wharf with teak bollards, a wooden canoe, beads, storage jars and shards from Roman wine amphorae were unearthed. The very name Pattanam means ‘port town’ (a suffix commonly used in town names such as Kaveripattanam, at the mouth of Kaveri river in Tamil Nadu, which ancient Tamil epics mention as the native place of Kannaki, as also a prosperous Yavana trading settlement). The reason there is no harbour here today is apparently because it was destroyed in the 14th Century by an earthquake followed by a flood, and the sea trade shifted 40 km south to Kochi, which — as we know — remains a major harbour to this day.

My rickshaw rattles across the mighty bridge straddling the river’s mouth, and the driver, an elderly man whom I found to be more knowledgeable than the first driver I engaged in the morning, is so pleased to have a foreign passenger that he insists we stop by his humble house, standing among coconut trees in a village after the bridge, to enjoy a cup of coffee with his family. They’re thrilled to hear about my ‘native place’ and ask if I can get them jobs in Europe. I get a feeling that Thomas may have been greeted likewise.

This neighbourhood, or what used to be Muziris, probably wasn’t much more urbanised in Thomas’s time than it is now.

In those days in Kerala there were few proper cities with paved roads, hardly any grand royal structures of the kind our minds conjure up about ancient towns — or when filmmakers make their historic epics, for that matter. A ‘city’ was more likely a cluster of villages that had agglomerated into a semi-urban trading hub.

Apart from Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, there would have been a colony of Jews — Indianised, yet fluent in Mediterranean languages, these expatriate compatriots would have connected easily with Thomas. In fact, all the seven churches that Thomas went on to found stood in places that used to have Jewish settlements — and which today have a significant Christian population.

One of the first converts in Muziris was the local Rabbi Paul, it is said.

The houses of these Jews were likely to have been built in teakwood around the market. Apart from pepper, known as ‘India’s black gold’, and other spices, the produce in their godowns that were destined for the export market included sandalwood, ivory, muslin cloth, silk and pearls. Goods offloaded and sold locally, or transported into the interiors, were Mediterranean wines, certain condiments such as fermented Spanish fish sauce, Italian pottery and crockery, glassware and lamps, exclusive colour pigments and a variety of foreign metals, possibly including shipments of tin from as far away as Britain (which the Romans had conquered for its tin mines barely ten years before).

So the prosperous bazaars displayed all the latest foreign items — yet, whenever Thomas was invited to lavish banquets, he would only have a piece of chapatti, some salt and a mug of plain water. He’d mostly be seen fasting, perhaps to avoid dicey food that caused stomach upsets. He was the ultimate traveller who carried the bare minimum: just the clothes on his back, which he wore until they fell apart.

The Acts of Thomas describe plenty of high drama that he met with around here, including speaking serpents and dragons. His most remarkable adventure involved a criminal investigation into a murder. A young man had allegedly, in a fit of anger, chopped up his mistress with a sword. It is said that she lived at an inn and committed adultery, perhaps meaning she was a prostitute in the seedier quarters of the port. Thomas interrogated the accused man, who confessed to his crime, and then solved the case by resurrecting the lady in question, who then described hellish visions from the netherworld. Thereafter she became a good woman and many of the witnesses converted. But my rickshaw driver and his family cannot recall any such incidents hereabouts.

However, the driver does know of the (perhaps) first church that Thomas founded. He excitedly drives me to the grandiose AD 52 St Thomas Kottakavu Forane Church in North Paravur village, a pink edifice which very obviously is of quite recent construction. A wedding is in progress, so I lurk about outside in the rather large compound with its colourful statues depicting scenes out of Thomas’s life. A signboard proclaims that the third church on the site was built in 1308 AD. Until the 18th Century, a wooden cross carved by Thomas himself was kept there, but it was destroyed when the church was ransacked.

It is said that Thomas came to this place, Kottakavu, which was a Namboodiri locality and the capital of a Brahmin kingdom, during a festival and was initially stoned. The saint prayed until a thunderstorm broke out, with bolts of lightning killing priests and one elephant. The idol broke into smithereens. Confusion arose. But then Thomas asked for some water, which he blessed and sprinkled over the dead, and all of them were revived and happy to convert.

The site of the festival, a Bhadrakali temple, was converted into this church.

On the church grounds, I’m excited to find an old piece of wall, known simply as ‘Old Wall’, which could have been part of one of the earliest churches. People, noticing my interest, lead me to a stone built into the foundation of the modern church and proudly claim the writing on it to be ‘Greek’. The westward connections remain strong here, because the man who shows me the inscription says he used to live in Dubai. After earning sufficient amounts of money, he returned home and set himself up as an elephant contractor. He’s got two at the moment. Would I be interested in renting them?

“Sorry, I’ve engaged a rickshaw driver for the day, so I don’t really need two elephants,” I say.

“But maybe one?” he asks, hopefully.

Having spent years visiting Indian archaeological sites, I make the semi-educated guess that the text on the stone is in a Tamil form of Brahmi script. So even if it isn’t Greek, it could be ancient — after all, Emperor Ashoka wrote his edicts using Brahmi. However, Googling on my phone, I discover that Brahmi is indeed related to Aramaic and was introduced to India by Jewish merchants in the 8th Century BC, so the stone may well be in Thomas’s own handwriting. At that thought my knees turn to jelly.