During my first visit to India, Shilpa, my niece, handed me a photo. “Christian, Hindu, Muslim,” she said pointing to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In the photograph, Shilpa, a Christian, and her classmates (Muslim and Hindu) all had roles in their school Christmas pageant. (That’s me and Shilpa to the left. SO to a Shilpa in Bangalore!)
Then, newly married to an Indian native, the photo pleasantly popped one of my preconceived bubbles about India. While I understood Christian missionaries role in evangelizing India, I didn’t realize that, today, many of India’s best schools, hospitals, and social service organizations are run by Christians. And Muslims, Hindus, and those of other faiths study and work alongside Christians in schools and other organizations. Over the years, visiting Christian Holy sites, I’ve been surprised at the faces of various faiths mingled in the crowds.
Ancient Christian roots run deep in India, deeper and more ancient than when the 16th century British arrived to trade under the banner of the East India Company. While the British ruled India for more than two centuries, Christianity first landed on the shores of India with the arrival of St. Thomas the Apostle of Jesus Christ in A.D. 52.
On my first trip to India, my husband and I visited the San Thome Basilica in Chennai, (South India) previously named Madras, (meaning Mother of God).
San Thome is built over the tomb of St. Thomas, who was martyred in India. Only two other basilicas are built over the tomb of an apostle: St. Peter’s in Rome and St. James in Spain (Compestella, Santiago).
Below, my photo of the San Thome sanctuary.
My husband took this photo of me in solemn awe at the tomb of the apostle whom Jesus asked to touch the wounds of his resurrected body and believe.
Recently, while vacationing in Goa (a Portuguese settlement in Western India on the shore of the Arabian Sea) my husband and I visited Bom Jesu (good Jesus) Cathedral.
At this Holy Site, the incorrupt remains of St. Francis Xavier are displayed in a silver casket above a side altar, five hundred years after his death.
I shot the close-up below with a long lens
Altar at Bom Jesus
After leaving Bom Jesu, my husband and I roamed nearby ruins of the Church of St. Augustine, built in 1602 by the St. Augustine Friars. We opened our umbrellas when sudden whooshes of monsoon rains rolled in like a gentle breath.
Over on the shores of the Bay of Bengal in Southern India, a magnificent shrine was built after the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared with Infant Jesus to a Hindu boy under a banyan tree during the sixteenth century.
We visited Our Lady of Velankanni shrine twice. The first time was two weeks after the 2004 tsunami. My husband and I and Vicky Drachenberg (a parishioner), arrived in South India for mission work after our church sponsored a nationwide fundraising event. Though massive devastation surrounded all sides of the church, miraculously, water did not broach the shrine that Sunday morning. Those inside survived.
Our Lady of Velankanni Shrine
A few years after the tsunami, we visited the shrine again. Each September 8th, on the feast of our Lady, pilgrims show up in droves, arriving on their knees at the holy site.
On the same day in September, over in South Central India, a sea of devotees flood the festival at St. Mary’s in Shivaji Nagar, Karnataka.
When people ask my husband, an Anglo-Catholic Bishop in the Holy Catholic Church Anglican Rite (HCCAR), how long his family has been Christian, he answers, “Probably since the time St. Thomas came to India.”
Christianity is alive and well in India and has been for a very long time.
More on Christianty’s ancient roots: The National Geographic Magazine’s March 2012 issue features, “The Footsteps of the Apostles,” a piece that includes St. Thomas’ journey to India, along with other apostles’ travels.
Sections of my upcoming novel, Crooked Lines follow the trails of Christianity throughout the subcontinent of India.