Stone Cross Carved by St. Thomas
If Little Mount goes down to history as the place that extended shelter to the Apostle Thomas and San Thome de Meliapor as the hallowed spot that possesses his tomb, St. Thomas’ Mount will ever be known as the Calvary of St, Thomas, which he climbed for the last time, after the manner of his Master, to shed his blood on it in the cause of the Saviour. This scene of his martyrdom is popularly known as ‘Big Mount’. Tamilians have dubbed it Periamalai to
distinguish it from Chinnamalai or Little Mount. Some call it Great Mount; it does not appear great or big to be so called. The familiar local name ‘Parangi-malai’ may be due to the Phirangis, as the Europeans were called, who settled around it. Cannon, known in the vernacular as ‘phirangi’ which was fired from the top of the Mount, may also account for Parangimalai. The Portuguese christened it ‘Monte Grande’. To historians and geographers it is well known as St. Thomas’ Mount. The trunk road connecting Madras with these two mounts, is called Mount Road, evidently because of these landmarks. St. Thomas’ Mount in the plains of the East Coast overlooks the Bay of Bengal as it rises nearly 300 feet above sea-level, about eight miles south-west of Fort St. George. It is six miles from San Thome de Meliapor and two miles from Little Mount.
The seaboard is about four miles from it as the crow flies. Very steep on the eastern side, the Mount slopes gradually towards the west, and stretches over seventy-five acres. Bygone years saw it densely dotted with gigantic trees. A thick undergrowth of wild shrubs precluded access to it. Today, but for the few straggling trees round its neck, the Mount is one vast, rough mass of huge granite boulders and syenite that easily absorb the heat of the scorching sun of Madras and as easily emit it to make the ascent doubly difficult for the pilgrims to negotiate. Fortunately for the visitors, a philanthropist, Uscan, who was greatly attached to this place as an Armenian Catholic, laid out a flight of one hundred and thirty-five steps with brick-paved terraces at intervals, from the foot of the hill to its very top. The stairway is flanked by a double wall. Peter Uscan was also responsible for the construction of the Marmalong bridge at Saidapet, in 1726. A large sum of money was left by him in the Indian Treasury to cover the expenses of the yearly repairs of both these works. Thanks to Peter Uscan-the Big Mount is not so difficult to climb up now, as it used to be in times past.
About forty feet from the top of the hill, the wall that flanks the stairway opens into a level space. This area, about fifty yards square, is surrounded by a thick wall of earth and stone not very high; it has eight openings at equal distances. Evidently this was a strategic military post. During the Anglo-French wars, the English had their signal gun on this spot. Colonel Geiles of the East India Company had it transferred later to the top of the hill. Traces of the gun position, as also of the magazine, can still be seen. On representation by the Bishop of Mylapore that the firing of the gun was detrimental to the church on the hill, military authorities promptly ordered its removal. It was to this hill, very difficult of access in earlier days, that St. Thomas repaired after escaping from his shelter at Little Mount. His murderers sought him there and were ‘on the point of seizing him. How long St. Thomas made his abode on the top of the hill, one cannot say. Unbroken tradition maintains that while the Apostle was praying before the cross carved by him on a stone, an assassin suborned by King Mahadevan’s priest and ministers, crept up stealthily and pierced him with a lance from behind. Thereupon the Apostle is reported to have fallen on the stone cross and embraced it; his blood crimsoned the stone cross and the space around. Thus did he seal his Apostolate with his blood, even as the other Apostles, save St. John.
‘And last a villain hastier than the rest, Pierced with a cruel spear his godly breast.
Wept Ganges and Indus, true Thome, thy fate,Wept thee whatever lands thy foot had trod;
Yet weep thee more the souls in blissful state Thou led’st to don the robes of Holy Rood.
But Angels waiting at the Paradise-gate Meet thee with smiling faces, hymning God.’
The Apostle, who would solve his doubt by putting his hand into His Risen Master’s side, was, destined to nave his own side opened with a lance as if to proclaim to generations to come that there was not a shred of doubt in him regarding the Risen Christ, in Whom he lived, moved and had this being and for Whom he shed his life-blood. His disciples took his body to San Thome de Meliapor, then known as Beth-Thuma, and interred it in his dear old place, about the year A.D. 72. This hallowed spot of his martyrdom has ever since exerted a supernatural influence on people far and near. Pious pilgrimages to this place have never ceased. The sanctity of the spot attracted many a settlement of Persian and Armenian Christians, down the centuries. Syrians and Nestorians followed suit. House sites and tomb stones at the foot of the hill afford ample evidence of settlements from the earliest times. Marco Polo who visited this place in the thirteenth century and Blessed Oderic in the fourteenth century, found numerous Christian communities at St. Thomas’ Mount.
D’Orey, an eminent historian, says: ‘To this very day, and from time immemorial, the city of Meliapour, to which the Christians of India have given the name of St. Thomas, sees every year, the two neighbouring hills covered by a multitude of Christians, old and new, who flock thither from the coasts of Malabar, from Ceylon, from the most distant parts of India, and even from Arabia, to deposit their offerings and to pray at the shrine of the Holy ‘Apostle’.
Rapid decline of these settlements and institutions greeted the fifteenth century. Frequent plundering raids by neighbouring Hindu and Moslem kings in those uncertain days may be put down as the chief cause for the decline of Christian life in these parts. Dr. Haug of Munich speaks of a great battle between the Christians and the Moslems around St. Thomas’ Mount about 1450. The Christians, who fell back to the Mount as their last line of defence, were defeated and fled before the enemy. Christian houses and property left behind, were either looted or confiscated. Some of the refugees settled at Pulicat about eighteen miles north of Madras. Others migrated to the South. When the Portuguese arrived later, they found the place practically deserted by Christians and only a heap of ruins had remained behind on the hill to tell the tale. It is to the lasting credit of the Portuguese that they lost no time in reviving Catholic life in this once flourishing Christian centre. They immediately set about clearing the ruins and built a sanctuary. In this commendable work they spared neither money nor energy. Portuguese settlements around this hill were effected in 1523. The very first Portuguese to settle down was Diego Fernandes, the same who had deposed under oath about the grave of St. Thomas. Portuguese authorities took possession of’ ‘Monte Grande’ in 1545.
Courtesy: In The Steps of St. Thomas, 2013
by the late RT. REV. HERMAN D’SOUZA, M.A., M.Ed.,Ph.D.
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