Saturday, 29 March 2014

A historical link across two weekends

Over two weekends I visited first St Thomas Mount and then the Santhome Basilica. It was mainly because someone in our sketch-group was kind enough to organise sketching permissions at both these places one after the other. But having gone to each place I started reading up about the connections - and was amazed at the variations in the stories that are available.

First off, the basics. St. Thomas Mount is a small hillock near the Chennai Airport. Legend has it that St Thomas, one of the original apostles of Christ came to Kerala in 52 AD and slowly made his way across to Madras where he was killed in 72 AD on the top of that hillock. His body is said to be interred in a tomb in Mylapore over which is built the Santhome Basilica. This is the most popular legend.

There is a Shrine - Our Lady of Expectation - which is a pilgrimage site on the top of the hillock and a winding stairway up to it. Very picturesque and very hot in the mid-day sun. The stairway has resting points and 14 "stations of the cross" along its side which are statues showing Jesus dragging the cross flocked by a small crowd.

As I was there sketching on a sunday, I experienced the full force of the Sunday Mass. As soon as a sermon in English concluded and the people poured out another wave of them would go in and another sermon would begin in Tamil. Once that was over there was one in Hindi and there was one in a European language as well (Portugese? Latin?)

People who came out would walk back down the stairway in groups singing hymns or some would hang around at the top as there was an excellent view of the airport from here. The children especially were endlessly thrilled to watch flights take off and land.

While the legend of St Thomas is questionable, the location is famous for another event which is completely factual and extremely impressive. Colonel William Lambton began the great trigonometrical survey if India from the top of this hillock in 1802. There is a commemorative bust of the great man at the very spot. I felt humbled thinking about the enormity of the task - few dedicated men  holding chain links and spot levels going all across our huge country and coming up with a highly accurate map.

In comparison,  my visit to Santhome was on a saturday and the Basilica was very quiet and peaceful. No matter what the veracity of St. Thomas's presence in India, the building is beautiful and a pleasure to sketch. Oh, and one last thing - did you know that St Thomas is the patron Saint for Architects?!


  1. Lots of interesting information here, and the sketches are superb.
    I am amazed that you were able to sketch Col. Lambton's face. It is always in the dark shadow of a banyan tree and since the background is so bright I could not make out any of his features.