Our visit to San Thome Basilica – Tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Thome Basilica in Chennai, India is the place where St. Thomas the Apostle was buried. It is a beautiful church built in neo-gothic architecture is a place of pilgrimage for people of the Catholic faith. The complex has the church, a chapel with the apostle's tomb and a museum.

My first visit to Chennai was many moons ago, when it was still called Madras. Having lived all my life in New Delhi I couldn't wait to visit the sea and the beach. The driver assigned to us by my dad's office was also our guide. A full-blooded Tamilian he took immense pride in any and everything in the city. He introduced us to the finest filter capi (filter-coffee), paneer-soda (a local version of banta/goli-soda), the yummiest masala dosa and the softest idlis in the by lanes of Mylapore and Triplicane. He even drove us to Kancheepuram, where I bought my first Kanjevaram Pattu sari, directly from a weaver. A fine detail that needs a mention here is that Ramu (V.S Ramaswamy Kandaswamy, his full name) our driver cum guide knew just a spattering of English and we spoke no Tamil. So, communication was a big issue.

On the first day with us Ramu learnt that we being Christians and only interested in visiting temples of historical significance. He was super excited when he came to show us around the next day. He spoke of Jesus and a 'Periya' Church; we weren't sure if we understood him, but, since the man was a trusted person from my dad's office we let him drive us to the 'Periya' (Big in Tamil) Church. If it wasn't for him we'd probably have returned to Delhi not knowing that a piece of Biblical history existed, right in the heart of Madras city.

The imposing Basilica of St. Thome

San Thome Cathedral

The catholic cathedral is of great significance to the Christian community because it is built over the tomb of St. Thomas, the apostle. It is believed that St. Thomas came to Kerala after Jesus resurrected and from there moved to this part of Tamil Nadu.

San Thome Cathedral as the locals know it was conferred the title of a Basilica. The 16th century cathedral was renovated recently, though no major structural changes were made. The first thing that strikes as you enter the compound is the magnificent neo-gothic architecture of the church. It is a commanding structure, with an imposing steeple towering over the buildings in the vicinity.

Also see: Ancient Churches in Chennai

St. Thome has the distinction of being one of three churches in the world erected over the tomb of an apostle – the other two being St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and Santiago De Compostela, Tomb of St. James in Spain. This makes it especially extraordinary and a place of pilgrimage.

St. Thome constructed over tomb of St. Thomas, the apostle

The Church is a major tourist attraction, with visitors coming in hordes on any given day. It is common to have tourists from all over the world walking inside the Church, cameras in hand. Mass, adoration and other ceremonies continue, even as tourists mill around!

Mass timings

Mass, Rosary & Adoration timings at St. Thome Cathedral, Chennai

The Tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle

The highpoint of the cathedral is the tomb of the saint located below the main altar which can be accessed from behind the church.
Inside the chapel at St.Thome - Tomb & Relic of the apostle
There is an underground chapel at the international shrine, and regular Eucharistic celebration is conducted here. The tomb lies in front of the altar in the chapel. The chapel also has a relic of the apostle on display.

Inside the Tomb chapel of St. Thomas the Apostle

Statue of Our Lady

To the right of the altar is a striking statute of Mother Mary, carved in wood, known as Mylai Matha. The statue is revered by the faithful who believe it has miraculous powers.

Our Lady of Mylapore - Mylai Matha

St. Francis Xavier spent hours praying in front of this statue. The feast of Our Lady of Mylapore (Mylai Matha) is celebrated in December. It is a grand affair, with people coming from far off places to be part of the celebrations. A grand chariot procession with the statue exposed marks the culmination of the feast.

Pictorial view of the inside of the Cathedral

The inside of cathedral merges magnificently with the structural architecture. Quaint confessionals, spiral stairway leading to the choir loft, antique doors and rows of solid teakwood pews.

Interiors of St. Thome Cathedral

Stained glass paintings decorate the high walls. Lower down the walls are adorned with life size portraits of the 12 apostles. The stained glass mural on the main altar is stunning.

Also Read Tamilnadu Tourist Places

Stained glass murals in St. Thome Cathedral

Visitors to the church can walk on to the altar and the area behind it when Mass is not in progress. This is where the priests sit on feast days when ceremonial High Mass is performed. The area behind the altar is quite ornate, as displayed in these pictures.

View from the altar - St. Thome Cathedral

When I first came to Chennai I had only the sea, the beach and Kanjivaram sari's in mind. But, on coming here I realized that the city has much more to offer. There is a lot of history to be found in Chennai. There are some ancient temples worth visiting, apart from monuments from the British era.

St. Thome Cathedral must be on every traveller's itinerary visiting Chennai, India. A visit here is recommended if not for religious sentiments, at least for the piece of history the place has to offer. Visitor's to the church can also visit the museum housed on the ground floor of the chapel. It has some very interesting articles on display. There are two more sites in Chennai associated with the apostle - St. Thomas Mount, on a small hillock close to the airport and Little Mount, where the apostle took refuge.

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Guest Author: Trevor D'costa09 Jun 2016

There is another place after San Thome, which is situated in a hill which is where St.Thomas was martyred. I skipped going there as it seems a little distant from Madras city.

Is the story about Kapaleshwar temple true regarding the San Thome?

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