Traveling the Paths of a Hardy Christianity in India ; Jesus' Disciple Thomas Is Thought to Have Ministered in India's South. Today, 2 Percent of Indians - 24 Million People - Are Christian

Article excerpt

Raymond Cruze is on a pilgrimage, which in India puts him in rather ordinary company. The destination, however, is not the Hindu's sacred Ganges, the Sikh's holy city of Amritsar, or the home of the Buddhist Dalai Lama in Dharmsala.

Mr. Cruze has come to a barren crag at the southern tip of India to stand where Christ Jesus' doubting disciple, Thomas, is believed to have been martyred some 2,000 years ago.

In a land that has given birth to the faiths of Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs and is now the world's third most-populous Muslim nation, Christianity often gets scant attention. But St. Thomas Mount on the outskirts of Chennai (formerly Madras) is a reminder that Christianity may have come here before it came even to Europe.

In all, Christians are India's third-largest religious group behind Hindus and Muslims. Yet at 24 million, they make up only 2.3 percent of the population and have only a fingerhold in most parts of the country.

It is here in India's far south where the country's Christian history runs the deepest - where holy days explode in a riot of color and devotees trace their tradition back to the earliest days after Christ.

"Christianity is deeply ingrained into the people of the south," says Rev. Dominic Emmanuel of the Roman Catholic Church's Delhi Archdiocese.

In most parts of the country, he notes, the Nativity of St. Mary in September is a modest affair, whereas in the south, it is a "huge celebration." On Holy Thursday, southern Christians visit seven different churches, gather together as a family, and eat bitter bread to commemorate Jesus' Passover meal. On Good Friday, the sermons can take hours. "That's not so in the north," says Father Emmanuel.

The distinctions arise from the passage of time. The south has percolated in Christian traditions since the establishment of the faith.

The Acts of Thomas, a third-century gnostic text, suggests that the disciple Thomas took his ministry to India after the ascension.

According to the text, Thomas preached throughout southern India before being martyred for converting the wives and a relative of an Indian ruler, Misdaeus. In Chennai, the cathedral of St. Thomas claims to be the resting place of the apostle.

While the truth of the Acts of Thomas is debated, it is likely that Syrian merchants brought Christianity to the ports of southern India no later than the fourth century. …


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