APRIL/20 NOVEMBER 19, 2015
The St. Thomas “Tree” in the Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore: Genuine or humbug?
Three views of what has been christened the “St. Thomas Tree”
A letter from me to Madras Musings, a Chennai “heritage” fortnightly:
Me (using an assumed name)
Date: Wed, Nov 5, 2014 at 10:09 PM Subject: THE ST. THOMAS TREE
I was born in San Thomé or Santhome 65 years ago, and lived with my grandparents (who then owned the place) and parents in “Culford”, a 24-room bungalow that had four servants’ quarters and two garages on Nimmo Road, located at a distance of around 200 meters from the gates of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Thomas, for the first 19 years of my life.
As a child in the ’50s, I used to go to the beach every evening accompanied by my younger siblings escorted by an “ayah” to relax, listen to the music broadcasted from the concrete circular “radio house” on the beach, play games and fly kites.
During the kite competitions, losers’ kites would sometimes descend into the compound of the St. Bede’s School chapel or the sea-front lawn of the Archbishop’s House to the left and right of the beach approach road respectively. To retrieve these “cut” kites, one could enter either of the premises only by scaling high walls after first scampering up the high sloping mound of beach sand on which the walls were raised. The bases of these walls incidentally are at the exact same level as the beach approach road, which is the same as that of all the land of the Cathedral of St. Thomas and its surroundings.
To get down onto the beach from the approach road that commences from the Cathedral’s boundary walls, one had to walk down a wide flight of around thirty steps bisected by an enclosure.
Within that enclosure and about midway down the steps that descend to the beach, there was a tall wooden pole a few inches thick, already fairly weather-worn through its entire height of maybe around twenty feet, extending from a roughly pyramid-shaped base made of what may be brick and mortar or cement.
Until fairly recently, the infamous December 26, 2004 tsunami to be precise, no one, none of the Church authorities in particular, took any cognizance of the pole. To the best of my knowledge, it in itself held no known historic significance, religious or otherwise, and was never associated with St. Thomas.
After the tsunami, the then parish priest, Fr. Lawrence Raj of the Cathedral Basilica National Shrine of St. Thomas, a corrupt priest who was the Diocesan properties in-charge,
notorious for his renovation of churches* see pages 4, 5 while siphoning off funds, etc., (see http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/FIR-against-12-for-misappropriation/articleshow/9331579.cms), claimed that the pole now christened the “St. Thomas Tree” miraculously saved the Church building and Santhome from the ravaging effects of the tsunami which overran the Marina beach beyond the lighthouse a kilometer to the north of the church as well as Srinivasapuram to the south, and claimed several lives.
The pole is believed to have been fashioned from a log of wood that is associated with St. Thomas by urban legend.
Fr. Lawrence Raj
“Galilee”, now 6 Nimmo Road was earlier “Culford”, 4 Nimmo Road. This property belonged to my paternal grandfather Gelasuis Lawrence D’Souza who purchased it in the 1920s when he moved from Mangalore to the then-Madras via Bombay. The entire property shown in the photograph was ours, including the land to the right of the main gate left pillar (right foreground) and that extending behind the main building. The structure on the extreme left was erected recently. The compound wall in the right foreground and the section of the building painted pink are the original building built in 1920. The original British-made spiral staircase and the Mangalore-tile roofed Burma-teak front verandah were replaced during renovations.
Culford’s gate. Go down the road to the end and the St. Thomas Cathedral is visible 100 metres to the right.
From my photograph album: left, “Culford”, the original building; right, renovated in the late 1960s
The fishermen’s huts at the foot of the steps on the Santhome beach were swamped by the tsunami waves.
“In gratitude to God” for “saving” Santhome from the tsunami, a sort of memorial was erected at the cemented-mounted pole with an inscribed plaque.
I believe that the claim of a miraculous saving of Santhome is balderdash and preys on the gullibility of people.
I have talked to other long-time Santhome residents who unanimously agree with me that there was never ever any link with the pole to St. Thomas the Apostle.
The Church claims that the pole is twenty centuries old. I wonder if it is even a century old.
I can argue from natural reasons as to why a beachfront wooden pole cannot survive exposure to the elements for so long.
I can argue from natural reasons as to why the tsunami wave did not swamp the Cathedral.
The base of the pyramid-shaped cement construction that supports the “St. Thomas Tree” is itself 10 feet higher, if not more, than the level of the sand that covers the beach. There is a flight of steps that goes down from the base of the pyramid-shaped construction to the beach, as well as up to the approach road.
The topography of the Santhome beach front is very different from that of the Marina to the north or its southern counterpart, Foreshore Estate/Pattinampakkam/Srinivasapuram about a kilometer from the Cathedral.
Local denizens have witnessed that the Marina and Foreshore Estate beaches are flooded with water during the annual rainy season known as the monsoon. Vast areas of beach sand become pools of water in which children frolic, constantly replenished by the wind-driven waves of the sea. This did not happen on the Santhome beach which during the 1980s was annexed piecemeal by fisher-folk with political patronage so that almost no trace of the beach remained except a narrow strip where beach meets sea beyond the service or loop road that connects the Marina with Foreshore Estate.
So, the Santhome beach had hundreds of tightly-packed-together residential constructions that stood between the tsunami/sea and the steps that lead up to the approach road.
The Cathedral and the buildings that existed to the east on its grounds are over 25 meters inland from the top of the steps.
The St. Bede’s campus to the immediate east of the Cathedral, and the Russian consulate to the north, and other beach front bungalows to the north as well as to the south up to Foreshore Estate and Srinivasapuram (a full kilometer from the Cathedral were completely unaffected by the wave). All the buildings are fronted by tall walls at least 6 feet high, erected at least another 4 to 6 feet above the level of the beach because of the natural slope formation of the sand dunes.
The wave of the tsunami that entered the areas around Leith Castle (where I now reside) and Pattinampakkam/Foreshore Estate/Srinivasapuram to the immediate south of where I live, could do so only because (i) the roads and public areas thereabout do not have the protection of high walls as we find to the immediate north and south of the Cathedral and Archbishop’s House; (ii) the roads and public areas in those places are on almost the same level as the beach, and there are no private buildings except a little further inland.
The areas which were affected (Marina and Srinivasapuram) were at, or almost at, the level of the beach itself which again is only a couple or more feet higher than the sea level. Even more significantly, the speed and height of the tsunami wave could not have overcome the Santhome flight of steps and the high walls of the buildings in its vicinity. On the Marina a kilometer to the north of the Cathedral, and at Pattinampakkam/Foreshore Estate/Srinivasapuram a kilometer to the south, there were no significant obstructions to the tsunami wave and so it could move a couple of hundred meters inland.
The “St Thomas Tree” is advertised on church pamphlets and brochures as a tourist attraction and people are beguiled by a false story, a religious myth fraudulently concocted around a natural disaster that destroyed the huts and shanties in which poor people lived on the beach, and which claimed many of their lives and all of their property.
The iron grills of the memorial erected to enclose the pole have become badly corroded within a decade of the tsunami. How could a wooden pole have survived the salt-concentrated sea air and vagaries of the weather for 20 centuries?
The whole thing stinks. It is shocking that the office-bearers of the Catholic Association, Parish Council and anbiams (Basic or Small Christian Communities) collaborated in perpetrating this whole scheme, or were passive and silent when the then parish priest planned and executed it.
A former Santhome resident
*St. Thomas Church caught in renovation controversy
July 30, 2004
Chennai – The renovation of the 108–year–old St. Thomas Church here has run into a controversy, with a voluntary outfit, the Forum of Catholic Unity, alleging that the Church has taken up construction work without the prior sanction of the concerned authorities.
At the center of the dispute is a move by Fr. Lawrence Raj to renovate the wooden roof of the church.
The Forum of Catholic Unity has attributed hidden motives to the renovation work.
“Now Father Lawrence has completed the work. We want a thorough investigation to be made as to why did he do it so secretly? Why he did not consult people and why was the structural stability not taken into consideration? It’s a very serious matter. Now, suddenly something happens, who is going to be responsible?
“Catholics are very law abiding people and he has violated all the rules. Now, doubts have been expressed whether he has taken some antiques from below and sold it,” claimed Devasahayam, Convenor.
“This excavation was done twice before also in 1923 and 1954. This is not for the first time we are digging. They dug twice and removed some stones, bones and pottery. Now I am making a new museum where I will keep all these things to make it more decent and attractive,” said Fr. Lawrence, the parish priest of St. Thomas.
In March 2004, the forum filed an application with the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, which issued a stop order on further construction activity on the church.
A total of Rs. 57 lacs were spent on the renovation.
Church authorities, however, condemned the allegations. “I do not see any controversy here. Some individuals because of their vested interest or whatever it is, they have not come to me nor have they discussed with me or with the municipal authority.” “They are simply going and reporting to different newspapers and different departments. It’s a project of the diocese; it’s not my project. The Archbishop and others are here. We have consulted engineers who are well versed with it and also have employed two big companies. This all proves that we are very much concerned and careful about the structural stability of the church. We are in fact a thousand times more concerned about the whole thing,” Fr. Raj said.
Larsen and Toubro and Gundu Rao Associates have undertaken the church’s renovation.
My letter to the Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore
Subject: THE ST. THOMAS TREE
Dear Archbishop George Antonysamy,
In preparation for a report that I intend to publish on my web site, I would like to bring this to your kind attention in order to get some clarifications either from you or from the archdiocese or from the priests concerned with the origin of the legend of the “Tsunami and pole of St. Thomas” which is printed along with an accompanying photograph in the brochures distributed in the National Shrine Cathedral Basilica of St. Thomas (see page 16).
Now, there are signboards in the compound of the Basilica that describe the pole as the “St. Thomas Tree“.
At 65, I lived the first one-third of my life in Santhome, and have been living the last one-third of it in and around Santhome.
I had never heard of the St. Thomas Tree or pole of St. Thomas before now.
It all seems to have begun after the 2004 tsunami under the then parish priest of the National Shrine, Fr. Lawrence Raj.
Until the December 26, 2004 tsunami to be precise, no one took cognizance of the pole. It held no historic significance.
A memorial with a commemorative plaque has been erected at considerable cost to the archdiocese or parish at and around the pole, and I presume had the approval of the Archbishop’s House as well as the Parish Council/Catholic Association/ anbiam leaders.
The urban legend, for that’s what it seems to be, gives the wooden pole and St. Thomas the credit for “saving” Santhome from the ravaging waves.
There are two aspects to this issue which I fear may be based upon pure myth.
As a devout but rational Catholic, and as a scientist, I believe that that claim is patently false. Am I wrong in thinking so?
I can argue my case with your kind permission, at least about the tsunami part of the legend.
Considering that the church premises sports a “museum” with ancient artefacts and records, is there any historical evidence that I can be provided with and examine that even faintly links the wooden pole at the head of the beach steps to St. Thomas?
Seeing that many Catholics must have been involved in the preliminary discussions, decisions, financing, construction, designing, printing, etc. surely there must be more than a few fellow parishioners or others who will be able and willing to answer my questions and clear my apprehensions.
I am approaching you and your office because my personal enquiries in the parish have met with negative or evasive answers that only fuel my doubts.
If I am wrong on the two counts, I would be most happy to be proved so.
If I am right on either one or both, I believe that the archdiocese/parish might have to take steps to rectify the situation.
cc: Reverend Fr. Louis Mathias, parish priest, National Shrine of St. Thomas,
cc: Reverend Fr. M. Arul Raj, Vicar General
If the Archbishop as the local ecclesiastical authority had a legitimate answer, he would have replied to me.
When I wrote to Madras Musings and to my Archbishop expressing my concerns about the “miraculous” “St. Thomas Tree”, it was out of my own personal suspicions and I had no idea that there might be a controversy and information on this Catholic Church-related issue on the Internet.
In fact my letter to Madras Musings had no URL in the matter of the renovation controversy/charges of financial corruption concerning Fr. Lawrence Raj, or photographs. I have only just now introduced them in the referred letter while editing it for clarity and inclusion here.
*FIR against 12 for misappropriation
July 23, 2011
CHENNAI: The Chennai Central Crime branch police Tuesday filed a first information report naming 12 persons, including Arul Das James, former archbishop of Madras-Mylapore, and A M Chinnappa, the current archbishop, on charges of breach of trust and misappropriation of donations made to the Demonte Charitable Trust over the years.
The others named in the FIR are Rev Dr. Lawrence Pius, Fr. P J Lawrence Raj, Rev Fr Andrew, Rev Fr Thomas Simon, Rev. Fr. KJ Francis, Kabir, Kumar, Y Jeppiaar, MGM Maran and Nhesh Shetty. A case has been filed under Sections 403, 406, 418 and 420 of the IPC. A copy of the FIR is with TOI.
According to the police, former bureaucrat M G Devasahayam lodged a complaint last year against the 12, most of them trustees of the Trust. In his complaint, Devasahayam alleged criminal breach of trust pertaining to immoveable properties worth hundreds of crores of rupees, meant for the welfare of poor, widows and orphans, and misappropriation of funds belonging to the trust.
Sir John Demonte, a rich Portuguese merchant, bequeathed in his will immovable properties to charity on July 19, 1820. The properties include 257 grounds (one ground is 2,400 sq. ft.) of land at Benz Garden (Boat Club Road) in Raja Annamalaipuram and 186 grounds of land at Demonte Colony on St. Mary’s Road. However, the property at Benz Garden was illegally put in the possession of Y Jeppiaar by Fr P J Lawrence Raj, property administrator of the archdiocese, the complaint said. This was in gross violation of the terms of the will and the trust, Devasahayam said.
Jeppiaar, Devasahayam said in the complaint, is still in possession of the property. “This illegal delivery of possession was followed by an illegal agreement for 50 years signed in December 2001 by the archbishop for 100 grounds and 50 grounds at Benz Garden to Holy Satellite Township Limited (Holy Land) and Sathyabama Institute of Science and Technology, both belonging to Jeppiaar, who gave Rs 2 crore to the trust for the agreement,” the complaint said.
See more at ARCHBISHOP OF MADRAS MYLAPORE-CORRUPTION CHARGES AGAINST THE OCTOBER 2009
Just for the record, the two photographs of “Culford” on page 2 are retrieved from the Internet.
Several of the photographs of the “St. Thomas Tree” and views of/from the beaches at Santhome, Marina and Foreshore Estate included in the present report are taken by me using a mobile phone and a camera.
When getting down to the business of writing this report, I discovered that there is indeed a fair amount of information on the Tsunami and the “St. Thomas” pole controversy on the Internet.
I found the following story on at least seven sites but the original with a photograph cannot be viewed.
How Tsunami waves did not touch Santhome Cathedral
From Indian Catholic, the news site of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India
Original source: http://www.theindiancatholic.com/news_read.asp?nid=274.
From “Annals Australasia” January/February 2005
See our article page 21 this issue ‘No. 7 St Thomas the Twin’.
The tsunami waves have subsided, but a miracle is being talked about across Chennai, India. It is the story of how St Thomas’ miraculous post kept the invading waves away, sparing the newly renovated Santhome [St Thomas] Cathedral.
The Cathedral, the world’s second basilica built to honour the apostle St Thomas, [the other basilica was built in Edessa in modern day Turkey. The body of the saint was brought back to Edessa after his martyrdom in India.], has been giving shelter to hundreds of tsunami victims ever since the waves ravaged many buildings across the coast.
But even though the killer tsunami waves devastated the Chennai coast, Father Lawrence Raj, the parish priest of the Santhome Cathedral Basilica, says ‘the sea did not touch our church.’
The reason? ‘We believe the miraculous post of St Thomas prevented the sea waters from entering the church,’ says Father Raj.
The church that sits at the site where St Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ, was buried after his death in the year 72 is located a few metres from the sea. While all the buildings on either side of the church were hit by the tsunami waves, the Santhome Cathedral remained unaffected.
Local people now say it is the St Thomas’ miraculous post that has kept the sea away on December 26.
According to Father Raj, the legend is that when St Thomas planted the post at the top of the steps leading to the Cathedral, he said the sea would not pass that point.
The priest saw from the terrace of church the angry sea in action, as it surged across the road and flooded the huts in front of St Thomas’ post, which is an innocuous looking log of wood, mounted on a cement pedestal.
The belief goes that a village in the Mylapore area was flooded when a huge tree trunk fell across the river. The local king brought a royal pachyderm to lug it away, but the task seemed impossible. Then, according to legend, St Thomas came along, removed the girdle from his waist and handed it to a bystander and asked him to yank the log with it. He did so and the log was moved easily.
A mural in the Cathedral museum illustrates this incident. (See page 17)
Father Raj says the current post is believed to be from that same log of wood.
Hundreds of homeless survivors who have been staying in the church ever since the tragedy hit them have prayed to St Thomas for saving them. ‘It is St Thomas who has saved me. This church was untouched by the waters because of the miraculous power of the St Thomas post,’ said K. Sebastiraj, a fisherman who sought shelter in the Santhome Cathedral.
I demand that incontrovertible evidence be provided by the Archdiocese to substantiate Fr. Lawrence Raj‘s assertion that “the current post is believed to be from that same log of wood“.
A poorly-researched and grossly exaggerated report from the Los Angeles Times:
At Least 13,000 Die in Tsunami
December 27, 2004
In the Four Shore (sic) Estate, a middle-class housing complex on Madras’ Marina Beach (Foreshore Estate is a full kilometer south of where the Marina ends at the lighthouse), the waves picked up stoves, televisions, refrigerators, furniture and even cars and sucked them out to sea, where they bobbed like beach toys before sinking. Nearby, poor fishermen and their families wept over the corpses of drowned loved ones.
Father Lawrence Raj, parish priest at the beachside Church of St. Thomas, was asleep when he felt the first shockwaves of the earthquake early Sunday, he said in an interview. People ran in panic during the tremor that Raj said persisted for 15 minutes. “That was the strongest tremor that I have ever experienced,” he said.
When calm returned, the priest sat down for breakfast. Just as he was finishing, about two hours after the temblor, he heard a loud noise and sent someone to investigate.
“He came back running, describing 15-foot-high waves,” Raj said. “We could see the waves,” which pounded the area, he added. Many of the dead “were either playing cricket [or] jogging near the beach.” […]
(In Santhome, there is no beach as such on which people may go jogging, and if there was one in 2004, it was inaccessible because of the slum that started from the steps; local residents stopped visiting the Santhome “beach” decades earlier; the only place where one could play cricket is ON the service or loop road which runs through the Santhome beach front.)
Several hundred yards from the sea, in the Srinivasapuram slum of central Madras, slabs of broken concrete were strewn about with pieces of thatched roofs, scattered kitchen utensils and the remains of uneaten meals. (Srinivasapuram, the concrete and thatched slum adjoining Foreshore Estate is not “several hundred yards from the sea” but smack on the beach as close as it can possibly get to the coast line.) The comments/inclusions in green are mine -Michael
Some 131 people were killed by the tsunamis in Chennai, most of them fisher folk who lived in the lowest areas near the shore. The Santhome Cathedral, which was built over the tomb of Apostle Thomas, was not harmed by the waves, but then neither was by far the greatest part of the city— the damage in Chennai limited itself to the shore areas.
What Snopes is saying is that the Santhome Cathedral is at an elevation as also not exactly on “the shore area” as compared to the tsunami-ravaged places.
Tsunami: St. Thomas abandons fishermen, saves himself
By Ishwar Sharan, February 9, 2010
The real miracle is that nobody has cut this ‘St. Thomas’ pole down and carried it away to their puja room or European museum!
In an extraordinary example of superstitious and deceitful reporting, Susan Muthalaly wrote on 4 January 2005 in The New Indian Express, Chennai edition, an article called the “Santhome Miracle”. It was a crass attempt by the lady scribe at Christian one-upmanship when the Tamil fisher coast was in crisis from the tsunami.
It is not clear why the newspaper gave her space to blow pious bubbles, though soft-soaping the religious minorities is the accepted practice in India’s English-language press. Even so, The New Indian Express, better known for plain speaking and bad English prose, caused some consternation among its trusting readers with the preposterous miracle story that unwittingly showed up St. Thomas as a selfish man interested only in saving his own skin while the fishermen’s huts below his church were washed away. Susan Muthalaly wrote:
Father Lawrence Raj, the parish priest of the Santhome Cathedral Basilica has been inundated with inquiries about the story of St. Thomas’ miraculous post, supposed to have kept the sea away on December 26. The 450-year-old church, located a few metres from the water, remained unaffected by the tsunamis even though buildings in line with it on either side were ravaged by the waves.
The belief, says Father Lawrence, is that when St. Thomas planted the post at the top of the steps leading to the cathedral, he said the sea would not pass that point.
“But that is the legend,” stresses the father, “nobody knows whether it is true.” The priest sounds wary of declaring it a miracle. Puzzling, considering his job and that he gives visitors what he jokingly calls “credit cards to heaven” – neat little plastic cards laminated with a pinch of soil from St. Thomas’ tomb that fit into your wallet. He offers logical explanations, like perhaps it is because the
church is built on a higher level. “But then,” he reasons, “the lighthouse is on roughly the same plain, and the water reached it.” (The lighthouse on the Marina is not built on a higher level but almost at beach level)
Father Lawrence says that for the people who have faith, it would be a miracle. “I believe it is,” he adds. He takes you to the terrace from which he saw the sea in action, as it surged across the road and flooded the huts in front of St. Thomas’ post. It is an innocuous looking log of wood, mounted on a cement pedestal.
The story goes that a village in the Mylapore area was flooded when a huge tree trunk fell across the river. The local king brought a royal pachyderm to lug it away, but the task seemed impossible. Then St. Thomas came along, removed the girdle from his waist and handed it to a bystander and asked him to yank the log with it. He did so and the log moved easily. There is a mural (See page 17)
illustrating the episode in the cathedral museum.
Father Lawrence says the post is believed to be from that same log of wood. Though there is another story that the post comes from the chapel that St. Thomas built in 74 A.D.
“People have been asking about this story. It has always been around but it is difficult to confirm as fact something that occurred nearly 2,000 years ago. That is why I have been trying to verify the story with other people,” says the priest.
Father Lawrence is certainly not alone in believing the story about the safety of his church.
“Till December 31 we had about 2,000 people taking shelter over here. Partly because it is a church, it is a centre point for distributing relief material. I suppose it is also because people feel safe here.”
Father Lawrence and his reporting scribe Susan Muthalaly are speaking out of both sides of their mouth. According to them, the story of St. Thomas and his miraculous log of wood is true and not true at the same time. Of course, it is not true as they both very well know but are unwilling to say as faithful Christians.
We have to help them tell the truth. We have scholarship on our side and are not tied to an unforgiving and infructuous religious faith. We wrote The New Indian Express editor on January 5th, with a copy of the letter to Father Lawrence Raj. We wrote:
Apropos the article “The Santhome miracle” (TNIE, Jan. 4), Santhome Cathedral and Bishops House stand on the site of the original Kapaleeswara Temple which was destroyed in 1566 by the Portuguese. This site is the highest point on the Mylapore beach and is naturally protected from sea surges, Dr. R. Nagaswami, former director of the Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology, has written: “The most important Kapaleeswara Temple lost all its ancient building during the Portuguese devastation and was originally located by the Santhome Cathedral. A few Chola records found in the Santhome Cathedral and Bishop’s House refer to Kapaleeswara Temple and Poompavai. A Chola record in fragment found on the east wall of the Santhome Cathedral refer to the image of Lord Nataraja of the Kapaleeswara Temple.” And, “A 12th century Chola record in the Santhome Cathedral region, refers to a Jain temple dedicated to Neminathaswami,”
Dr. Nagaswami and the Jesuit he worked with also recorded the finding of Buddhist images in the same area. There is no literary or archaeological evidence that a Christian church ever stood at this site prior to the Portuguese occupation of Mylapore.
The story of the wooden log which St. Thomas miraculously lifted was borrowed from the Jagannath Puri stala purana and introduced into the Mylapore St. Thomas legend by the Portuguese. The wooden log (which miraculously has not yet been stolen) now standing on the beach at the bottom of the steps leading from the church can be dated by radiocarbon testing, as can the bones in the two alleged St. Thomas tombs. When the dates of these relics have been established by forensic science (as is done with relics in European churches), their true nature and identity can be more easily ascertained.
This letter was not published in The New Indian Express and when we realised that the newspaper was not going to allow a rejoinder to its outrageous miracle story, we sent a personal appeal to the Managing Editor M. K. Sonthalia. He had on past occasions shown himself to be a responsible editor of courage and integrity when dealing with the St. Thomas controversy. But this time he was silent.
A second appeal was sent to him on January 19th, expressing our dismay at his silence and refusal to accommodate a reply to Susan Muthalaly’s article. We accused him of cowardice and of hiding behind the skirts of philosophy—Indian editors who have read a book or two take refuge in philosophy when they do not want to take responsible action. We also pointed out that Santhome Cathedral Basilica was a monument to religious bigotry not a house of miracles.
But the silence continued, and we learned it was the silence of recreance, not philosophy, The managing editor had allegedly come under pressure from his Christian editors and shareholders not to publish our rejoinder, and he had succumbed to their demands even as he had earlier succumbed to their dictate that the popular columnist Francois Gautier be dismissed for his pro-Hindu views.
This sad state of affairs at The New Indian Express leads to the larger question of journalistic ethics and integrity. The English-language press in India is politically correct and opportunistic. It is a commercial commodity without ideals. It has no credibility among the informed public because it is wedded to a secularist fundamentalism that is at odds with the spiritual ethos of the Indian people. At the same time it is able to shape public opinion to some extent, and it benefits politically from its morally criminal position of untruth. But one day this will change, and one day the people of Mylapore will learn the true history of the holocaust that took place on their beaches in the 16th century in the name of a malevolent foreign god whose intolerant nature and imperial ambitions were first recorded in the Old Testament. 
1. The article “The Santhome Miracle” by Susan Muthalaly appeared on 4 January 2005 in the Chennai edition of The New Indian Express. When our response to it was not published, we informed the managing editor of our intention to reproduce the article in full on this web site and asked him to inform us if he had any objection. We have not received any objection from him to date.
The New Indian Express makes a Tsunami
By Ishwar Sharan, 2010
(Ishwar Sharan, also known as Swami Devananda, is a former Canadian Protestant came to India in 1967 and became a Hindu sannyasi.)
The Indian Ocean Tsunami: The Global Response to a Natural Disaster
St. Thomas’s Miracle Pole
Edited by Pradyumna P. Karan, Shanmugam P. Subbiah and Dick Gilbreath, 2010
Page 2: On Marina beach in Chennai, India, women selling fish and children playing cricket, morning walkers and tourists, all died as the tsunami waves came ashore.
Pages 227, 228: In Chennai, there were larger numbers of victims … from the citizens’ relaxation spot of Marina beach and its southern Santhome beach.
Santhome beach, located in the stretch from the lighthouse to the Adyar river mouth, witnessed large-scale destruction due to the tsunami waves. Here Santhome Cathedral is one of the central landmarks of the area…
Santhome Cathedral is a little away from the seashore. When the tsunami waves hit the area of Mylapore, they reached the backshore area, but the shrine was not at all affected. This is considered by Christian devotees another Santhome miracle. Fr. Lawrence Raj, the parish priest of the Santhome Cathedral Basilica has been asked numerous questions about the story of St. Thomas’ miraculous pole, supposed to have kept the sea away on December 26 (2004). The 450-year-old church, located a few meters away from the water remained unaffected by the tsunami even though buildings in line with it got wet by tsunami waves*. The belief, says Father Lawrence, is that when St. Thomas planted the pole at the top of the steps leading to the Cathedral, he said the sea would not pass that point. “But that is the legend,” stresses the Father. “Nobody knows whether it is true”. The priests sounds wary of declaring it a miracle. He offers logical explanations, like perhaps the church was spared because it was built on a higher level. “But then,” he reasons, “the lighthouse is on roughly the same plain and the water reached it.”**
This pole is just like an ordinary flag-hoisting tower on the side of the building facing the sea***, and it was not at all remarked upon before the tsunami, neither by tourists nor by devotees. But today, if you look carefully at its position, it certainly appears to be preventing the waters from flowing in from the sea.****
Further, recently an inscription has been added to the pole on the church side: “ST. THOMAS POLE: IN GRATITUDE TO GOD FOR SAVING SANTHOME FROM TSUNAMI 2004″…
Bishop Raj’s***** miracle stories were introduced through various media, initially in the national newspaper New Indian Express, Chennai edition, January 4, 2005, in an article written by Susan Muthalaly titled, “Santhome miracle”. This story was further disseminated on the Internet in “How Tsunami waves did not touch Santhome Cathedral” (January 4, 2005). In addition, many other Catholic sites quoted this, causing the story to be further known. However, the bishop himself does not say whether the story is true or false.
The statement that the pole “was not at all remarked upon before the tsunami, neither by tourists nor by devotees” is absolutely true.
To say that “the church was spared because it was built on a higher level” is absolutely true, but they should have also stated that there were these huge natural as well as man-made barriers between the tsunami and the Cathedral.
*The Cathedral is NOT simply “located a few meters away from the water” as the report says. It is on an elevated level and separated from the sea and the beach by the high wall (which is constructed on the top of a slope from the beach) of the St. Bede’s campus as well as by a large concrete building (a two-storied chapel existed in 2004) on the St. Bede’s campus, and again by a two-storied building on the eastern side of the Cathedral campus. The 2004 tsunami could never have touched the Cathedral.
It is not “a little away from the seashore” to quote the same author; it is far enough away with enough natural as well as made-made barriers between it and the sea.
The tsunami wave even did not make it to the Cathedral over the steps that flank the “St. Thomas pole” which stands about 50 meters east of the Cathedral rear gate at the end of the approach road to the beach.
**The Marina lighthouse is NOT IN THE LEAST “on roughly the same plain” as the “St. Thomas” pole and the Santhome Cathedral. The base of the lighthouse is almost on level with the beach. The region around the Cathedral is at a MUCH HIGHER LEVEL than anywhere else on the fore-shore stretch from the lighthouse at the southern end of the Marina beach through Foreshore Estate to Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar, Adyar.
***It is a falsehood to state that the “St. Thomas” pole is “on the side of the building facing the sea“.
What side of what building? Please take a look at the photographs that we have provided in this report.
****About the pole:
“But today, if you look carefully at its position, it certainly appears to be preventing the waters from flowing in from the sea“. This again doesn’t make any sense at all and is utter rubbish.
*****It should read as Fr. Lawrence Raj. He was the parish priest and not a bishop.
The lighthouse at sea level at the southern end of the Marina 500 meters from the Cathedral to its south
The above nine images are of the Marina; the buildings and two parallel roads on and just off the beach are virtually at sea level; the views immediately above, extreme right and extreme left, are from the lighthouse
Views of the Srinivasapuram/Pattinampakkam/Foreshore Estate beach front where the tenements and roads are at sea level and not protected by walls as are the buildings in the Santhome area
The above are views of the Cathedral from its eastern and south-eastern side; the centre and extreme right pictures are taken from the approach road that leads to the steps on which the “St Thomas” pole stands.
They indicate the considerable distance to the steps from the Cathedral’s rear gate which is clearly visible.
Three photographs of the pole taken from the top of the steps (top left) and the bottom of the steps
The above two photographs of the Santhome beach steps also showing the “St. Thomas pole” were taken by me. The one on the left is taken from the service road that runs through the beach at sea level.
The one on the right is taken from across the service road (which is now clearly visible), standing on the beach a few feet away from the sea.
In conclusion, the tsunami wave could NEVER have climbed the steps and swamped the Cathedral, there was no “miraculous” intervention by St. Thomas, and the “St. Thomas pole” had nothing whatsoever to do with it. The whole story is a legend cooked up by the then parish priest Fr. Lawrence Raj and endorsed by successive Archbishops and parish priests to befool the tourists as well as local Catholics who will never have the guts to contradict anything they say.
Now compare the above five images of the Santhome waterfront with those of the Marina and Srinivasapuram/Foreshore Estate beaches on the previous pages. The reader will be able to appreciate one of the many reasons as to why the tsunami wave did not reach the Cathedral whose spire is visible in the background.
To the immediate left of the Santhome beach steps is the tall compound wall of the Archbishop’s House which rises about six feet above the level of the approach road on which I am standing, leaning on the said wall, extreme left of the largest photograph. To the right of the steps is the under-construction St. Bede’s community centre and wall which once guarded their chapel. Behind it, to the west and not in the picture, is the two-storied building of the Cathedral’s priests’ residence and museum.
Those are the other reasons the tsunami did not touch not only the Cathedral but also the Archbishop’ House, the St. Bede’s campus and the Russian consulate to their north, Kalpana Illam and the English St. Thomas C.S.I. Church to their south, and many other structures up to the Marina and down to Foreshore Estate that were protected by high walls, similar to those at the Archbishop’s House and St. Bede’s, which were erected at the top of the slope of the sand dunes.
The “memorial”-cum-tourist attraction is not maintained; its surroundings are filthy (the newly-erected slum on the beach is visible through the grille work) and one can see that the iron has corroded in less than a decade of its erection.
But the Archdiocese maintains that the pole is associated with the Apostle St. Thomas and is 2000 years old!
Telling lies for St. Thomas – Koenraad Elst
August 21, 2011
A miracle by the seashore, as the legend goes, allowed St Thomas, an apostle of Jesus Christ to lay the foundations for the first church in the city. Jude Sannith S retraces the legend…
Overcome with awe at the aura that surrounds the National Shrine of St Thomas Basilica at Santhome, you might tend to overlook a narrow lane that lies adjacent to the southern compound wall of the cathedral that leads you towards the seashore. A walk down this lane takes you to what seems to be a coastal hamlet that lies in the midst of what seems to be a tall, weathered wooden pole. On looking back, the tall spire of the cathedral is almost hidden by the trees in the vicinity – it is the wooden structure that occupies pride of place and rightly so. After all, the very foundation of the Christian faith in the city owes its existence to the wooden pole and the legend behind it.
According to the legend, shortly after St Thomas arrived in India in 52 AD, a large wooden log was carried downstream by a river in Mylapore, to lodge itself by the river’s mouth and result in a flood. Try as hard they might, the king’s men failed to remove the log, which prompted the king to call on a certain hermit who lived in the area and was believed to perform miracles.” Along came St Thomas with a blessed girdle that was given to him by Mother Mary (the mother of Jesus Christ), “narrates Fr. S. Kanickairaj, the Rector and Parish Priest of the National Shrine of St Thomas Basilica, as he retraces the Legend. “He prayed for a while, and tied the girdle to the log. He heaved. With the first try, the log was removed and the river flowed into the ocean. St Thomas then took a portion of the log and planted it, pointing towards the heavens, stating that the sea would never cross the pole.” The legend, according to Fr. Kanickairaj goes on relate how the pleased king, as a sign of gratitude, offered Mylapore and its surrounding areas to the saint, who then constructed a small chapel near the sea, which today (after a series of renovations) is the majestic Neo-Gothic-styled National Shrine of St Thomas Basilica – a development of what was perhaps the very first church in the city. “Many believe that the reason that Santhome escaped the Tsunami of 2004 is simply the existence of the pole which continues to stand upright today,” he says. “The St Thomas Pole; in gratitude to God for saving Santhome from Tsunami 2004,”its inscription declares.
Tsunami and St. Thomas the Apostle
January 16, 2005
Q: I was listening to EWTN last weekend and I thought they said something about a basilica in Southern India that had survived the tsunami unscathed. It supposedly houses the remains of St. Thomas the Apostle. Does anyone know anything about this? I just caught a bit of it and didn’t even catch the name of the church.
In memory of a slain saint
C.A. Simon, August 4, 2010, with two photographs
By Sudha Pillai, May 2, 2014, with excellent photographs
Inside (?) the church compound stands a pole called the Santhome pole. Nobody knows who erected it. Some attribute it to the Saint himself. Legend has it that the sea has never crossed the pole and never will. Apparently even during the tsunami the sea did not defy the pole, leaving the church intact and annihilating the rest in its wake. Thus remains till today the glorious, centuries old edifice as witness to Christs famous words, Be not faithless, but believing.
It is believed that Apostle Saint Thomas erected this pole made out of the wood washed ashore. Faithful believe that the presence of this pole saved their life during the devastation of Tsunami on 26th December 2004.
My Lord, My God!
By Elizebath Philip
There is a St. Thomas pole behind the church, on the way to the beach from the Basilica. It is believed that St. Thomas erected this pole as a mark to prevent the sea from encroaching the land, thus protecting the people who stay there. Even now people vouch that because of this pole, Tsunami did not affect the area behind the church.
By Apoorva Sripathi, August 1, 2014
Behind the church is the Pole of St. Thomas — a log of wood that is believed to have been washed ashore and erected by St. Thomas. The log however, is weather-beaten and the grills surrounding it are being used to hang wet clothes by the locals. Nevertheless, the view of the Marina from the Pole is calming and comforting.
She means the dirty Santhome beach; the Marina is a kilometer to the north.
A change of mind? In the following 2005 account, Fr. Lawrence Raj now dismisses the legend of the “St. Thomas” pole as “fertile imagination”:
Must I be Thomas?
Gene Thiemann serves as a Lutheran World Relief Consultant with the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India and he tells this story in “Tsunamolies”. Gene was visiting Fr. Lawrence Raj, who is the parish priest at a massive and beautiful white church located near the beach in Chennai (Madras). Near the end of the visit, Gene asked to have his card. Fr Raj replied with a smile, “I have two to give you: an earthly one and a heavenly one.”
Gene, Of course, was interested to see what the heavenly one looked like! It was laminated, and looked like a Visa card. On the Visa icon were the letters: SCBC. It stood for Santhome Cathedral Basilica Chennai, the St. Thomas Cathedral, which along with St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, are the only two churches in the world believed to be built above the tomb of an apostle.
The back of the card says: “Traditionally it is believed that St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ came to India in 52 A.D. to proclaim God’s message of love and forgiveness. He died as a martyr for the sake of Jesus Christ and was buried at Santhome, Chennai, India.” So the “credit card” number on the front begins with these digits: “0052 0072″—signifying the year of his arrival in India and the year of his death.
There is little or no doubt among Indian Christians that this is so. References to the historical accuracy of this claim date back to about the third century. A large orthodox church based in the southwestern state of Kerala (where Thomas is thought to have done much mission work) is named “Mar Thoma,” or Holy Thomas.
There are legends that have surrounded the life of St. Thomas. One is that a log jammed a flooded river, a log stuck so tightly between the river’s banks that even a local king’s royal elephant could not remove it. Thomas, so the story goes, removed his “girdle,” gave it to a bystander to attach to the log, and with little effort, the log was yanked away. The grateful and astonished king gave that log to Thomas to build a church near the ocean’s shores.
From that log came a pole, which it is popularly believed, Thomas thrust into the ground, saying the waters of the ocean would not reach the church. When the tsunami struck, the waves came close according to some published reports, but did not reach the church! That same published report quoted Fr. Raj as saying “We believe the miraculous post of St Thomas prevented the sea waters from entering the church.”
I asked him about this legend, and he replied to me that it was just “fertile imagination.”
But the post still stands about 30 feet tall at the rear of the Basilica, overlooking the Indian Ocean.
And, finally, the truth that I have been proclaiming is confirmed by Joe Nisha:
By Joe Nisha, August 3, 2011
The legendary log that was pulled out of river by St. Thomas to avoid floods was used to build the pole behind the church and also for other wood work in the church. There is a wooden pole that stands behind the church even today. It is said that when St. Thomas built this church he placed a pole behind the church to avoid the sea water entering the village surrounding the church. During 2004 tsunami, people believed that the water did not reach the church and no casualty reported in the surrounding area of the church because of the presence of the pole.
Anyways the fact Santhome lies in a small mound that is 20 feet above the sea level is one of the reason why Tsunami did not affect Santhome.
To cite a report on page 9, “the church was spared because it was built on a higher level“.
There was no miracle and the wooden pole had nothing to do with the tsunami’s not touching the Cathedral.
The claim about the “St. Thomas tree”/”St. Thomas pole” is pure humbug.
To humbug (verb): to deceive, trick, delude, mislead, fool, hoodwink, dupe, hoax, take in, beguile, bamboozle, gull, cheat…
Lest I be misunderstood, I must assert that I am a Catholic apologist and I firmly believe in miracles.
Some related files:
HINDU FLAG POLE AT CATHEDRAL OF ST THOMAS IN MADRAS-MYLAPORE ARCHDIOCESE 5 FEBRUARY/30 MAY 2013/27 NOVEMBER 2014
ARCHDIOCESE OF MADRAS-MYLAPORE HOLY MASS-THE SACRIFICE OF CALVARY OR A BIRTHDAY PARTY? 17 JULY/6 DECEMBER 2014
BHARATANATYAM AT HOLY MASS AT CATHEDRAL OF ST THOMAS IN MADRAS-MYLAPORE ARCHDIOCESE
8 FEBRUARY, 2013
PETS AT HOLY MASS AT CATHEDRAL OF ST THOMAS IN MADRAS-MYLAPORE ARCHDIOCESE
8 FEBRUARY/ JULY 2013/MARCH/24 SEPTEMBER 2015
LITURGICAL ABUSES IN THE ARCHDIOCESE OF MADRAS-MYLAPORE
FEBRUARY/MARCH 11/19/MAY 20/JUNE 25/6 AUGUST 2013/APRIL/MAY 2014/MARCH 2015
UPDATE NOVEMBER 19, 2015
My spiritual director (a priest) and I visited the Basilica today and I happened to tell him about the “St. Thomas Tree” and the tsunami story. We also studied the coloured pictorial pamphlets available in English and various Indian languages as takeaways and read what they say about the whole thing. His curiosity was piqued and he wanted to see the “Tree” and so we walked over to the site to the south-east of the Basilica. After seeing it and the beach below it, the priest concluded that the wooden pole could not possibly be 2000 years old and that the 2004 tsunami wave’s not traveling beyond the pole was a natural event and no miracle.
Yet the brochures provided by the Basilica continue to perpetuate the lie (it beats me as to why they do so, when they themselves refer to the log and pole as “legend/legendary” and agree that the “people/faithful believe” in these things to be true), and I quote from it (excuse the quality of English):
Legendary Log and first church of Mylapore
A huge log washed ashore was blocking the narrow mouth of the river that caused floods on the banks. The strong men of the king’s army could not pull it inspite of their best efforts. Having heard about the divine power of St. Thomas, the king sent his messenger to him. St. Thomas came, spent a few minutes in silent prayer, touched the log with the Girdle of Virgin Mary and asked the men to pull it. They pulled it without any difficulty. Pleased by this, the king offered the land where the log was first sighted for the construction of a church. Thus the first church of Mylapore took shape.
Tsunami and Pole of St. Thomas
Many people believe that when Tsunami struck on December 26th of 2004, the area behind the church was protected because of the presence of Pole of St. Thomas. Legend has it that St. Thomas erected this pole as a mark to prevent the sea from encroaching the land, thus saving the life of the people living near the shore. Faithful believe that it may be the same pole that stands behind the basilica. St. Thomas made this pole from the legendary log that was washed ashore which was gifted by the king for building the church.
Note that the account contains yet another legend or myth, that of the “Girdle of the Virgin Mary”.