Photograph of St Thomas Mount near Madras (Chennai), Tamil Nadu, from the Macnabb Collection (Col James Henry Erskine Reid): Album of Indian views, taken in c.1900. The mount is 11 km south of Madras and is traditionally held to be the site of the martyrdom of the apostle St Thomas. It is thought that he founded Christian communities on the west coast of India and came to Mylapore, where he was killed in 68 AD. A flight of granite steps marked by 14 Stations of the Cross ascends the mount to Our Lady of Expectation Church, built in the mid-16th century by the Portuguese who established a Mission at the mount. The steps were built by Petrus Uscan, a notable member of the Armenian community of old Madras. The military cantonment, consisting of barracks and colonial-style bungalows, lay at the base of the mount. This is a view from the hill, looking down onto cantonment buildings.
History of the Shrine
St. Thomas Mount is a Holy place of international prominence, historical eminence, religious glory and tourist attraction. The ancient Church on the top of St. Thomas Mount has served as the light house for the Portuguese and Armenian ships and vessels in the Bay of Bengal in the 16th and 17th centuries. Interestingly, it is said, when sailors sighted the Church they offered prayers for a safe Voyage and then discharged from their artillery in salutation. Preserving its glorious antiquity, this five-century old Shrine Chapel has been renovated and restored in the recent times.
The Mount of Saint Thomas is easily accessed by the devotees who make the vowed climb through the 134 granite steps as an act of penance and sacrifice. An ornate arch with an imposing elegance remains an attraction to all those who happen to glimpse it with a note of the year of its construction, 1726.
The Armenian merchants of old were great benefactors of many Catholic Churches in and near Madras. Petrus Uscan was the greatest among them. He built a brick paved road with granite steps at intervals flanked by a double wall leading from the road below to the top of the mount. In his foresightedness, he also left a sum of money with the Administrator-General of Madras for the upkeep of these steps.
To make possible for modern vehicular traffic the accessibility to the historic Shrine, the late Archbishop Louis Mathias (the last of the European Bishops) had a 3.5 meters (12 feet) wide fully asphalted road laid by the military from the south- western base of the hill right upto the top in 1962. This imposing welcoming arch serves as the main entrance to the Hill Shrine.
According to tradition, the Cross chiselled on a stone of this hill by St Thomas himself and used by him for his personal prayer gave strength to him when he was pierced from behind with a lance as he was praying before it. It is believed that the Cross should have been stained with the blood of the Martyr. This Cross was accidentally discovered later by the Portuguese when they dug the foundations for the new Church in 1547.
According to ancient records, this Cross sweated blood during the Holy Mass celebrated by Fr. Gasper Coelho on the 18th December 1558. In the early years, this Cross used to sweat blood every year, then every two or three years and, later, at longer intervals. The last occasion on which it was found sweating blood was in 1704.
Popular faith says that innumerable miracles of cures were attributed to this sacred stone cross through mere contact with it in faith and it has roused the conversion of many unbelievers. Even today the natural dampness on its surface is a perennial factor of surprise and devotion. The image of the Cross itself is unique
It was in 1908 after much disputation that the inscription around the cross was deciphered as: “Through the Cross, the Messiah borught salvation to the world”.
As per tradition, the oil painting of the Madonna of the Blessed Virgin was painted by St Luke the Evangelist on wood and was brought here by St Thomas and used by him for prayer. Hence it is popularly known as the “Scapular of St Thomas.”.
In “Tombs and Descriptions in the Madras Presidency” ( A Government Publication ), Mr. J. J. Cotton says : “This is a picture painted by St Luke who was an artist. The Virgin died when Thomas was away and on his return he had the tomb opened in order that he might once more look upon her. It was found that the body had been miraculously removed and Thomas was so disturbed that St. Luke offered to paint him a portrait of the Virgin as a consolation. This portrait St. Thomas carried with him on all his wanderings”.
The first written account of this painting is made in 1559 when the King of Bisnaga took it to his Court in Chandragiri and later returned it in a palanquin to the Mount.
The wear and the warp of this sacred species are explained by the efforts of the people down the ages to bury and hide it in order to protect it from the onslaught of the invading enemies.
However the Madonna is considered to be one of the oldest and most venerated paintings in India and countless favors and blessings have been recorded by devotees who have stood and prayed before it.
The fifteen Stations of the Cross adorn the sides of the steps. The minute precision with which the figures have been moulded and the heaviness of the rare metal used in them add colour and life to the scenes of the Stations of the Cross along the steps of the Mount.They are spots of inspiration and they spiritually dispose the pilgrims who climb the steps for an eventual spiritual experience on the hill top Every year during Lent thousands of people flock the hill to make their Stations of the Cross with the help of these depictions. The annual mammoth gathering of people for the Mass celebrated by the Bishop on the Palm Sunday evening is the culmination of their Lenten pilgrimage.
Fr.Gaspar Coelho, Vicar of the Church in Mylapore in 1545 records that one Diego Fernandes, a Portuguese, built a small oratory on top of the hill over the foundation of a very ancient church in 1523 AD. The spot was already a place of pilgrimage.
Since this oratory dedicated to the Mother of God was very small and since the number of pilgrimage was increasing, Fr. Coelho laid the foundation for a bigger church on March 23, 1547 and completed the existing church within a year. It was then known as the Church of Our Lady of the Mount.
Since it was just a week before the birth of Jesus that the extraordinary event of bleeding of the Cross is said to have happened, Mary is honored as the Mother of Expectation in her throes and the Church that entombs the stone cross and the sacred spot of the Apostle’s martyrdom was dedicated to Our Lady of Expectation as the peak structure of the Hill.
Every year the 18th December has become the Annual Feast Day of this Shrine Chapel, which is celebrated with unction and devotion.
Fr. Gaspar Coelho, who had built the church was buried in it and there is an inscription over his grave at the very entrance of the church.
The welcoming gate of the Hill Shrine with its Indian lamp conveys the message that Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. The two lampstands with seven wicks each symbolize the witnessing life and death (Rev 11:4) of the Prophet Martyrs like StThomas. An osmosis of light at the entrance reminds us that a city built on the hill top cannot be hidden (Mt 5:14) but that it will shine.
The facade of the Shrine Chapel is beautifully ornamented and highlighted by the Portuguese coat of arms engraved in rich granite and it serves as an official signature of the Portuguese who were the architects of this historical place of worship.
The shell patterned roof of the Chapel is a tunnel of spiritual energy leading thousands of pilgrims in fervent prayer to the cave of their hearts.
The stone inscription on the top of the outer side wall reads in Portuguese that the frontal extension of the original chapel and the massive main wooden doors were “ordered to be done by Zacharias in the year 1707.”
An Arch inside the church bears the title in Portuguese: “Senhora da Expectacao” (Our Lady of Expectation) with the year of its construction 1523.
The shrine church entombs a piece of the Bone of St Thomas casketed in a beautifully ornamented monstrance. People have witnessed to many miracles that have been effected through the efficacy of this holy relic.
This Sanctuary is said to be the spot where St Thomas was martyred. Any one standing on this surface will certainly feel the vibrations of the hidden current that floods this main altar area. The excellent artistic background elevates the inner soul.
The framed oil painting of St Thomas being pierced with a lance from behind in his praying posture on the wall behind the high altar is the high point of awe and devotion for all who climb the hill to reach this sanctuary.
The artistic finale exhibited in the attractive wooden podium of the fifteenth century is a monumental piece of ancient art. It bespeaks the importance attached to the Breaking of the Word in the liturgy of the early centuries. The ornamental wood carving in unison with the main altar is a banquet for the eyes of the beholder. This is another gift of Petrus Uscan.
The votive shrine that shelters the colourful Statue of Our Lady in the sitting posture is of a later fashioning and it exhibits a graceful look and maternal benevolence.
The huge framed paintings of antiquity screening before us the images of the twelve Apostles and that of Christ and of St. Paul are marvelous treasures of art and faith. They not only adorn the church but they also elevate our spirits. Though such pictures of the Apostles are common in the great Basilicas of the West, the uniqueness of these consists in their miniature picturesque information about the way in which each of the Apostles glorified their Master in their final offering.
The renovation process of the Shrine Chapel has given a new face lift to the northern side With the enticing arch door inviting people for a personal encounter with the Eucharistic Lord.
The silence and stillness of the Eucharistic Adoration Chapel provides the best of the atmosphere for one’s contemplation and deep prayer. The Italian marble laying, the dim lighting effects, the antique hanging lamp, and the Portuguese styled ancient altar add to the serenity of the place and the sanctity of the Chapel. Hundreds of pilgrims choose to come to the Hill just to spend some quiet time in the gripping presence of the Eucharistic Lord. This Adoration Chapel is kept open everyday from 7.00 a.m to 7.00 p.m
The enveloping presence of the divine is made an experience to all by the very appearance and structure of the Adoration Altar. The Tabernacle door depicts the conjunction of three hands – God’s own hand in unconditional giving, my own hand of selfless giving and the hand of my neighbour’s solidarity – the three basics of a wholesome spirituality with the cross at the background.
The absorbing and scintillating Monstrance with golden rays of wheat grass and fine art touch on the base, the adorning cherubs in oxidized silver holding aloft the base plate are all a rare combination to evoke lasting throbs of the divine. This marvellous piece is a generous gift of one Mr. Vincent from Chicago.
The enchanting atmosphere on the hill top is being further enhanced by the imposing Calvary depicting in life size images the scene of Calvary, with a huge Crucifix and a tall black and white obelisk in the background. This monumental piece overlooking the city of Chennai is a striking landmark visible for miles around. It is a masterpiece commemorating the Sacerdotal Golder Jubilee of His Grace Archbishop Louis Mathias dating back to 1963. The devotion with which devotees kneel or stand before the Calvary in prayer evokes our inner self.
The majestically overlooking Bell Tower of the Hill Shrine provides an exquisite sight of grandeur. Besides a chiming bell and a Station of the Cross, the tower houses a historical monument commemorating with gratitude the heroic martyrdom of Mr. Jacob, the Manger of the Shrine who was killed by a fanatic while defending the Christian ownership of this holy hill on the 26th November 2006.
Though the Mount is a proud heritage of the Christians, it has remained the attraction of tourists from within the country as well as abroad. The open air stage meant for public worship and the grilled open space provide an exquisite sight of the whole city of Chennai, especially with its illumination far and wide, a panoramic view which is a gift unique to this spot alone. The presence of a huge banyan tree and a green peepul/ pipal tree on the Hill is a natural gift to the seekers since both the trees are a rare sacred species in the Indian context.
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