The Other Thomas

Charles Nicholl

‘The tale of the apostle Thomas is a sea unspeakably vast.’ Thus the Syriac poet Jacob of Sarugh, who lived in upper Mesopotamia in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. The words are stirring but to our ears perhaps surprising, because in the West we think we know Thomas’s ‘tale’ and its significance pretty well. He was ‘one of the twelve’, the inner circle of followers or disciples of Jesus. More particularly, he was the disciple who questioned the truth of Jesus’s resurrection. In John 20, the only gospel source for the story, he demands to see and touch the physical evidence of crucifixion – ‘Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe’– and when invited or commanded by Jesus to do this he becomes a believer. This iconic scene echoes through Western culture, in paintings, carvings, miracle plays, poems and sermons. Another thing we know from the gospel story is that Thomas was a twin, for that is the meaning of his original Aramaic name, Tau’ma. The author of John helpfully points this out to his Greek-speaking readership when he thrice refers to him as ‘Thomas called Didymus’, the latter being the Greek word for ‘twin’. This is elaborated in the Apocrypha, which insist that his brother was Jesus himself, but that is a non-canonical tangent to be avoided for the moment. The Thomas we know is the familiar stubborn-minded questioner, the one we see in Caravaggio’s great painting, with his lined face, grimy thumbnail and russet-coloured coat torn at the shoulder. He has become proverbial, a part of everyday speech, his name indissolubly linked with his scepticism: ‘Doubting Thomas’.[*] For many today, compounded more of doubt than of belief, he seems the most admirable, or anyway the most sympathetic, of the disciples. We recognise him as someone not unlike ourselves.

A statue of St Thomas at the Palayur Jetty, Kerala.
A statue of St Thomas at the Palayur Jetty, Kerala.

But there is another part of Thomas’s story which is less familiar to the West, and which would certainly have loomed large in Jacob of Sarugh’s conception of him: his mission (or missions) to India. That he came is an ancient tradition in India, and the core belief of a thriving Christian community there. According to the Mar Thoma Nazranis or St Thomas Christians of Kerala, whose current membership is about one million, the apostle landed on the Malabar coast a couple of decades after the execution of Jesus. His point of entry – variously named in the old Indian sources – is identified with Cranganore, at the mouth of the Periyar River, and thus with the long-vanished trading port known to the Greeks and Romans as Muziris. In the kingdom of the Cheras, after whom the modern state of Kerala is named, he performed miracles and healed the sick, converted Hindus and Jews and established seven churches (or in some versions, intriguingly, seven and a half). Journeying on across the Western Ghats into the Chola kingdom, he was martyred in 72 AD at Mylapore, now a suburb of Chennai, where the cathedral of San Thome, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, marks the traditional site of his burial. Implicit in this claim of apostolic origin – and explicit in the church’s prolific output of booklets and websites – is the idea that this exotic little branch of the Christian family tree is actually one of the oldest of all Christian churches. Its ancient pedigree has stood it in good stead amid the frequently volatile sectarianism of modern India. ‘Remember,’ the former Indian president Rajendra Prasud said in a speech on St Thomas’s Day in New Delhi, ‘St Thomas came to India when many countries in Europe had not yet become Christian; and so those Indians that trace their Christianity back to him have a longer history and a higher ancestry than the Christians of many European countries do; and it is really a matter of pride to us that it so happened.’

My interest in this other Thomas tradition was sparked when I visited Chennai a few years ago, and was surprised to learn – and surprised by my ignorance – that the apostle had been buried in this far-flung corner of Tamil Nadu. The cathedral of San Thome, rebuilt in 1893, is a large neo-Gothic structure in wedding-cake white not far from the southern end of Chennai’s Marine Beach. I saw his tomb in the crypt beneath it, and the displayed sliver of his bone, and the shard of the spear that killed him. The tomb does not actually contain Thomas’s remains, which have a chequered history. They were removed, or ‘translated’, in the early third century to the Syrian city of Edessa, a major centre of Eastern Christianity, where their presence was celebrated by Syriac hymnodists such as Ephraem of Nisibis and Jacob of Sarugh; and after a brief stay in the 12th century on the island of Chios they ended up in Ortona on the Adriatic coast of Italy.

The setting in the crypt is unsympathetic – the gloomy ‘In’ and ‘Out’ corridors with green lino floors are no doubt necessary in the busy pilgrimage season – and I have anyway never had much of a thing for alleged holy relics. From the cathedral a pleasant auto-rickshaw ride through the old streets of Mylapore took me to Little Mount, a rocky hillock rising from the coastal plain, where the saint spent his last days in a cave; and then on inland to the larger St Thomas’s Mount, where I climbed the 134 steps to the little white shrine on the summit which marks the site of his martyrdom, speared to death by soldiers under the orders of a hostile Hindu raja. On the altar stands the Mount Cross, to which various supernatural stories attach but which is quite powerful enough without them. Dug up by the Portuguese in 1547 from under the ruins of an earlier shrine, it is a glowering slab of granite, about two feet square – ‘as big as a millstone’ was an early description. A curvaceous ‘Persian cross’ with triple buttoned extremities is carved in relief on it. The cross is surrounded by an arch, on the upper surface of which is an inscription in Pahlavi whose meaning is still disputed; on paleographic grounds this is assigned to the seventh or eighth century. The cross itself may be older – not as old as St Thomas, as the relics claim to be, but very beautiful and austere.

What this unexpected extension of the Thomas story produced in me was not any access of religious feeling but an intense biographical curiosity. His Indian adventure seemed to round off a life story of which I had hitherto only known part: that deeply ingrained part of discipleship and doubting. The Thomas of the gospels is a man caught in a momentary spotlight: the famous scene of doubt and resolution is told, in the King James translation, in about 150 words. But here was something longer, more circumstantial, more actual – a twenty-year mission, a journey through broadly identifiable places around and across the southern tip of India. Could the story be true? And if it was how could one know: what kind of markers of its truth could one see and touch?

Some answer to those questions may be sought in Kerala, but first one must venture into the entangling thickets of ancient source material. When and in what form did the story of Thomas’s apostolic mission in India emerge? It is not to be found in the New Testament, which is mostly silent about the later careers of the disciples (despite its title, the Acts of the Apostles has little to say about any of them except Peter; its main protagonist is Paul, an early apostle but not one of the ‘twelve’). The earliest written source on the subject is to be found in the Apocrypha. This is a class of writings which may not seem the best source for documentary data, though to call an early writing ‘apocryphal’ is really a reference to its exclusion from the biblical canon rather than a comment about its truthfulness. Most of the apostles had apocryphal texts attached to their names, but Thomas was one of the most prolifically represented. The most famous is the Gospel of Thomas, sometimes called the Fifth Gospel, a Coptic text from the cache at Nag Hammadi discovered in Egypt in 1945; there is also the Book of Thomas the Contender (sometimes rendered, rather bizarrely, as ‘Thomas the Athlete’), and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. But these are essentially collections of Jesus’s sayings as reported by Thomas: he is their putative author. The one that concerns us here is the Acts of Thomas, which is not ‘by’ him, but about him, and specifically about his mission in India.

The Acts of Thomas was probably first written in Syriac, but there are also versions in Greek, Latin and Armenian, and some (among them M.R. James, as well as a writer of ghost stories an authority on apocrypha) have argued that the Syriac is a translation of a lost Greek original. Though the extant manuscripts are much later, the original text is generally dated to the third century. It refers to the removal of Thomas’s bones to Mesopotamia, an event which is probably historical and which seems to have occurred around 230 to 250 AD. Some of the hymns and prayers inserted into the text have been attributed to the Edessene preacher and poet Bardaisan, who died in 222 AD. The book was known to St Augustine, who brusquely notes that it is ‘read by Manicheans’.

It is a strange mix. High-flown gnostic poetry and propaganda are mingled with a mass of more picaresque material – miracles, magic, talking animals etc – written in an episodic, romance-like format. It might as well have been titled the Adventures of Thomas, as our apostolic knight-errant battles single-handed, in hostile terrain, performing feats of conversion and baptism. But beneath its colourful surface there is a faintly perceptible stratum of historical reality, though it is a confusing one, as it seems to place Thomas’s mission in the extreme north of India, thousands of miles from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which are now the heartland of the tradition.

According to the Acts, Thomas journeyed from Jerusalem to India in the company of a merchant, who was employed by a ‘King of the Indians’ called Gudnaphar (or in the Greek version, Gundaphoros). They went by sea, disembarking at an Indian sea-port which is named Sandaruk in the Syriac, and the ‘royal city of Andrapolis’ in the Greek text. There, at the court of Gudnaphar, after many tribulations and incidents, he converts the king and his brother Gad, and other unnamed members of the royal family. About halfway through the story (the eighth of its 13 ‘acts’) Thomas takes leave of the converted king and his court, and sets out in a wheeled vehicle (translated according to taste as a ‘chariot’ or a ‘wagon’) drawn by wild asses, for another region, unnamed, which is under the rule of King Mazdai (Greek, Misdeos), and here, after further episodes of courageous ministry, he meets his death.

Not much notice was taken of these names until the 19th century, when archaeologists began to uncover coins and inscriptions which showed conclusively that there was a first-century Indian king called Gondophares. He appears as Goundaphorus, Godaphana and Guduvharasa; the name is apparently an honorific derived from an old Persian formulation, Vindafarnah (‘May he find glory’). A Parthian prince from what is now northern Iran, he ruled over a large annexe of territory either side of the Indus, including the Punjab, Sindh and parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The capital of his ‘Indo-Parthian kingdom’, as it is called, was at Taxila, not far from present-day Peshawar. His coin effigies show a hawk-nosed, headband-wearing warrior on horseback. An inscription dated 46 AD, found at Takht-i Bahi and now in Lahore Museum, calls him the ‘Maharajasa Guduvharasa Sases’ and states that he was then in the 26th year of his reign. This gives him a regnal span of at least 20 to 46 AD; he is thus a precise contemporary of Thomas the Apostle, reigning in part of India at the time of Thomas’s reputed visit (according to the Acts his mission began shortly after the Resurrection, so the inferred date of his Indo-Parthian journey would be around 30 AD). Possibly the port-city which the Acts calls Sandaruk or Andrapolis – names not discoverable in any gazetteer – is a reference to Minnagara, which is described in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (an anonymous route-book of the first century AD) as a ‘metropolis … subject to Parthian princes’ lying close to the middle of the seven mouths of the Indus.

It has been proposed that the other Indian king named in the Acts, Mazdai or Misdeos, is also an actual person – a Kushan emperor who is generally known to history by his Hindu honorific, Vasudeva, but whose name appears in Kushan coinage as Bazodeo, and in Chinese trading documents as Bodiao. This seems less convincing orthographically (though the B/M exchange is apparently common in classical transcriptions of Indian names), and the identification would anyway weaken the case for historical authenticity, as Bazodeo was on the Kushan throne more than a century after the time of Gondophares, and could not have had any dealings with Thomas.

There is no historical evidence of Gondophares’s conversion to Christianity, as claimed in the Acts, though some have sought to interpret a recurrent symbol on his coins as a chalice – a very early Christian symbol which predates the Cross. The predominant religion of Parthia was Zoroastrianism, and the Jandial temple – a surviving remnant of Gondopharid Taxila – has been interpreted as a Zoroastrian fire temple. Nor is there any continuous tradition of Thomas’s presence in the area, except an elusive Sindhi sect called the Tatta Nagar Fakirs. In 1947 a Scottish missionary, the Rev. R.A. Trotter, reported: ‘There is a fakir community living in Tatta, which has occasionally revealed itself … It calls its small community by an Aramaic name, something like Bar Thomai, the sons of Thomas, and claims that it is descended from Christians baptised by St Thomas himself.’ However he could find ‘no outsider, either Indian or European’, who had seen their supposed collection of manuscripts and relics, and actual members of the sect were ‘as hard to come by as the Indian lion’.

This Syriac, probably Edessene, version of St Thomas’s Indian adventure has a curious historical resonance in its reference to Gondophares, but otherwise reads like a fairy tale. The Keralan version of the story is more precise. It is found in a series of devotional songs or ballads in Malayalam, one of the old Dravidian languages of southern India, still spoken today in Kerala. These texts are comparatively recent in their written form, but claim a provenance stretching back to the earliest centuries AD. They were traditionally recited or sung by Christian ashans (village bards), and are still performed before weddings and feasts in the St Thomas Christian community. The best known is the ‘Rabban Pattu’ (‘The Song of the Master’) also known as ‘Thoma Parvam’ (‘Song of Thomas’). In its current form it is said to have been set down in 1601 by a certain Thomas Ramban (ramban, meaning ‘a priest’ or ‘monk’, is the Malayalam form of the Hebrew rabban, ‘master’). He claims to have based it on an account handed down through 48 generations from his ancestor, Maliyekkal Thoma Ramban of Niranam, whose father was one of St Thomas’s first disciples in India. This authorial provenance is akin to the ‘lineage history’ (vamshvāli) which is a strong tradition among Keralan Christians. In Robert Eric Frykenberg’s Christianity in India, vamshvālis are described as orally transmitted pedigrees which ‘claim hereditary authority within certain elite families, through which kattanars [pastors] and metrans [bishops] descended from one generation to the next’. He adds that some families are able to trace up to seventy unbroken generations of office holders, so by these standards the provenance of the ‘Rabban Pattu’ is modest.

According to the St Thomas scholar George Menachery, the ‘Rabban Pattu’ is ‘the substratum of all the traditions concerning the Apostolate of St Thomas in South India, even if some minor details may be backward projections from the concepts of the Church’s life at the time of the latest redactions of the song’. It is not the only old ballad devoted to the St Thomas story. Another important one is the ‘Margam Kali Pattu’, the song which accompanies the Margam Kali or ‘Dance of the Way’. It is recited to the accompaniment of a pair of hand-cymbals while a dozen dancers weave and chant around a nilavilakku, the traditional brass or bell-metal lamp integral to Keralan rituals; the lamp represents Christ, and the 12 dancers his disciples. Like the ‘Rabban Pattu’ the text of the ‘Margam Kali Pattu’ is said to have been written down by a 17th-century priest, Itti Thornman Kattanar. A partial text was published in 1910, and more has been recovered since through the dogged efforts of a Keralan Catholic priest, Fr Jacob Vellian, who has travelled the length and breadth of the state recording fragments known to the village bards. He was interviewed by William Dalrymple in the 1990s. ‘Over the years,’ Vellian says, ‘I have tried to meet with every Christian ashan in Kerala. Most of them were illiterate: isolated old men who were only barely aware of the importance of what they were clinging onto … Not one ashan knew the whole of the … ballads.’ In remote villages Vellian stumbled across ancient palm-leaf books which preserved other fragments of the ballad in tiny one-millimetre-high Malayalam lettering.

These old ballads are variants on the same basic narrative and are full of circumstantial detail. A composite version, with a few editorial adjustments, tells the story as follows. Thomas the Apostle, ‘coming from Arabia’, landed on the Malabar coast in the month of Dhanu (December/January) in the year 52. He arrived in the company of a Habban, a Jewish merchant (he is a figure common to both the Syriac and the Keralan versions of the story). They landed at a place called Malankara, near the mouth of the Periyar river. He stayed in the royal enclave of Thiruvanchikulam, which is now known as Cranganore or Kodungallur, where he founded the first church on Indian soil. He converted the Chera king of the region and baptised him with the name Andrew. (This could make sense of the otherwise mysterious ‘Andrapolis’, which the Greek version of Acts names as Thomas’s port of arrival in India: ‘Andrapolis’, or City of Andrew, may reflect the Greek author’s knowledge of the Keralan tradition.) Thomas spent a year at Cranganore, during which he converted four hundred ‘pagans’ (i.e. Hindus) and forty Jews. He then set off with the king’s nephew Keppa and ‘built’ or established a further six churches: Palayur, Kottakkayal, Chayal, Niranam, Kokkamangalam, Kollam. In some versions the list is expanded to include the mysterious ‘half-church’ (arapalli), located at Thiruvithamkode. During this period Thomas also travelled to Mailapuram or Mylapore on the Coromandel coast, sometimes by boat and sometimes by following a trail which crossed the Western Ghats at Malayattur, today a place of pilgrimage. Then in 69 ad, at Chayal – the only inland church of the original seven – he took leave of his Malabar followers, telling them that they would not see him again, and departed once more ‘to the land of the Tamils’. In the year 72, on the third day of Karkadakam (July), he was speared to death by soldiers on the orders of a local prince at Mylapore. The poem enumerates the miracles he performed: 94 dead brought back to life, 230 lepers cured, 250 blind given sight, 260 delivered from demons. His conversions among the Hindu population are reckoned at 17,480, of whom 6850 were high-caste Brahmans.

To trace these footsteps across the modern map of Kerala, the place to start is obviously Malankara, which is specified in the ballads as Thomas’s port of arrival in the year 52 AD, and which is echoed in the name of the largest of the St Thomas Christian subsects, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. The driver thinks he knows better, and he is partly right, for Malankara (or Maliyankara) is now just a small and rather nondescript village in the delta country a couple of miles inland from the south bank of the Periyar. A narrow road leads through a straggling dust-coated orchard of coconut palm and banana, and tamarind trees with green capsules of unripe fruit adhering to the trunk. The village is dominated by the grounds and buildings of the Sree Narayana Mangalam Institute of Management and Technology, a ‘self-financing engineering college affiliated to the Mahatma Gandhi university’. The landscape runs off towards the coast where there are paddy fields and prawn farms.

Malankara is inland now because this stretch of central Keralan coastland is constantly shifting, eroding and reforming. The entire topography of the area was transformed during a period of cataclysmic flooding (perhaps a tsunami) in 1341, which led to the silting up of the port at Cranganore, and the consequent rise of Kochi or Cochin some thirty miles to the south. Things have moved on, quite literally, since the year 52: another obstacle of uncertainty to the pilgrim or inquirer. It seems, nonetheless, that the naming of Malankara in the pattus is a precise location, for just a mile or so to the south of the village lie the submerged ruins of Musiris, the great port of antiquity, now also wedged inland since the flood of the mid-14th century. Its location, near the village of Pattanam, was unknown until the early 1980s. Excavations over a site covering some fifty hectares have recovered Roman coins and jewellery, Mediterranean amphora and Yemeni pottery, as well as the teak bollards from the wharf, and the remains of an 18-foot dugout canoe. The fabric of this preserved fragment of Musiris shipping is jackwood, from the tree called wild jack or, locally, anjilly. It is a relative of the tree that bears the delicious jackfruit, whose softly elastic flesh and perfumed flavour is one of the characteristic tastes of South India. Anjilly is still the wood of choice for the boat builders of Kerala – the shipyards which turned out large seafaring ships are now few, but the traditional skills are still deployed building the wonderful ‘snake boats’ which race on the rivers with crews of a hundred oarsmen.

First-century Musiris was an international port centred on the spice trade. Pliny the Elder called it ‘primum emporium Indiae’, the great marketplace of India, and complained of the luxury goods purchased there – pepper, spices, perfumes, silk, gems, slaves – being a drain on Roman resources. An early Tamil poem, the Akananuru (‘The Four Centuries of Love’) speaks of ‘the splendid port of Muciri, where the large and beautiful ships of the Yavanas’ – Greeks, or more generally foreigners – ‘come laden with gold, splashing the white foam on the waters of the Periyarru, and go back laden with pepper.’ According to the Greek geographer Strabo, over one hundred Roman ships a year took this route. The discovery of the monsoon winds, described by the navigator Hippalus in 47 AD, shortened the journey across the Arabian Sea to forty days (the previous route tediously hugged the coast of Arabia and Persia). The dating of Roman coin-hoards suggests that trade peaked in the mid-first century AD.

For a man who wanted – or was ordered – to travel from Palestine to India at this time, there were frequent boats plying a well-known trade route. It may be impossible to prove that Thomas made this journey, but it is certainly demonstrable that he could have done. Unlike the rather hazy Indo-Parthian geography of the Acts, the Keralan narrative of Thomas’s arrival in India is precise and plausible. The thriving port of Muziris was a place of interchange, a crossroads where Jews, Arabs, Greeks and Romans could be found – an ethnic mix Thomas would be familiar with from his homeland.

A few miles inland from Malankara and Muziris we come to the northern outskirts of Paravur, and the little church of Kottakkavu, one of the seven claimed to have been founded by St Thomas. Kottakkavu means Holy Place by the Lake, though in the ‘Rabban Pattu’ it is called Kottakkayal (Fort by the Lake). It is not a very distinguished building: early 20th-century, in the ‘Indian Gothic’ style that prospered during the Raj, but the baptismal pond is tranquil and green. Across the dusty precinct comes a slight, bespectacled man with pens lined up in his shirt pocket: he is Mr Jacob Joseph, a local schoolteacher and part-time churchwarden. In a little chapel by the gate he shows me the Persian cross, which he thinks is ninth-century, from the time of the ‘second building’ of the church by Mar Sabor, bishop of Kodungallur (the ‘first building’ being by Thomas himself). He glosses the Malayalam inscription on a stone commemorating a 17th-century Jesuit bishop, Archbishop Francis Roz. The church is of the branch of St Thomas Christians which accepted the Roman liturgy introduced by the Portuguese; the ‘Jacobites’, who clung to the old Syrian rites, have a separate church in town. ‘We are loyal to Rome,’ he says gravely, ‘but sometimes people in the West should remember that Christianity was always an Eastern religion.’ Of Thomas he says: ‘He did not have blind faith, which is shallow faith.’ And later: ‘St Peter was the rock, but Thomas had weakness and doubt to overcome.’ There is something touching about this rather frail, learned man of indeterminate age contentedly mulling over St Thomas in a provincial Indian churchyard. For some years he worked overseas: a ‘clerical contract’ as a stenographer and secretary in the Saudi oil depot of Dammam. ‘So I too have crossed the Arabian Sea – but not in a boat.’

In all the churches of central Kerala there is a remarkable fusion of Christian and Hindu: those highly coloured and cluttered angels that look suspiciously like minor Hindu deities; the elephants carved on a lintel; the pulpits supported by serpents; the tall wavy parasols that lead the way to the cemetery. Villages are a model of communal multi-faith tolerance; you wake in the morning to hear the call of the muezzin, the gongs and drums of a Hindu temple, the choral chants from the church – each in turn. There are clear boundaries – intermarriage between the different communities is still rare – but not hostile barricades. Non-Christians consider the Nazranis an old and respected part of Keralan society, a respect that goes back to the fourth-century copperplates of Cranganore, in which the Chera king Perumal granted them not only lands but such high-ranking rights as riding on elephants, sitting on carpets, and ‘playing seven kinds of musical instrument’. They are accounted strong and sensible business people: ‘very big’ in the lucrative pepper trade. In Kollum, you are told, they run the cashew business, and in Kottayam they own newspapers. At a smart wedding at St Mary’s Forane Church on the banks of the Pampa the service is bathed in movie-set lighting for the benefit of camcorders. It is stagey, baroque and uplifting: the sharp-bearded priest in scarlet and yellow, the deacons in pink with frilly fuschia jabots, the riot of flowers, the harmonium chants, the sonorous Malayalam responses, the ceiling fans at full throttle beneath a high wooden roof.

Six of the seven churches supposedly established by Thomas are extant – the one at Cranganore has disappeared – but none is very ancient in its fabric or bearing. Palayur has some remnants of an earlier wooden structure incorporated into the 17th-century edifice built by the Portuguese. There are some beautiful 12th-century churches in Kottayam, which is now the major Christian centre of Kerala, but they are not among the original seven. It is actually the mysterious arapalli or ‘half-church’ of Thiruvithamkode which has the most powerful sense of antiquity. It lies across the state line, in the western tip of Tamil Nadu. The oldest part of it is a squat stone chapel, some thirty feet long, with small windows set high in the walls; the stone is unadorned except for a few simple geometrical incisions. A sign under a tin roof announces it as ‘the oldest existing church in the world, founded by St Thomas in 63 AD’, and while this sounds an exaggeration it is certainly very old. The tradition says it is a ‘half-church’ because it was originally a kind of refuge or hospice set up by Thomas for Christians fleeing persecution in Mylapore, but it seems there is some etymological doubt about the word arapalli. One of the church staff, an earnest young seminarist from Kottayam, explains that while ara can mean ‘half’ it is in this case more probably the archaic Dravidian word meaning ‘royal’, and signifies that the church land was the gift of a local king or arachan. A Tamil chronicle adds some confirmation, referring to a Chera king of the area, one Imayavaramban, as a protector of ‘saints’, which probably means Christians. So the half-church may be a whole church after all, which in turn would mean that the seven apostolic churches were eight. The seminarist’s eyes widen in alarm at this dangerous train of thought.

At the Our Lady of Purification Church in the old fishing port of Kollum, I ask the priest, Fr Alphonse, about the original church, which has records going back to the sixth century. Is it perhaps under the present building, which dates from the 1980s? Might there be archaeological remains? He laughs. He is 35 years old, somewhat thespian, with very white teeth. No, he says, gesturing in the direction of the sea a couple of blocks away: ‘It’s somewhere out there.’ Another altered coastline. Down on the waterfront, the fishermen play rummy on a blanket in the sand. The boats drawn up along the shore are painted in vivid blues, with horizontal stripes of red and yellow and white. There are boats called Jesus and St Mary and St Xavier and St Antony Thunai. It is nearly evening; the water is grey and opaque, and the drowned church ‘somewhere out there’ seems an apt enough metaphor for the irrecoverable nature of St Thomas in India. He is lost amid legends and approximations: a sea of possibilities which is, as Jacob of Sarugh had warned, ‘unspeakably vast’.

[*] Frank Kermode wrote about Doubting Thomas in the LRB of 5 January 2006.