Originally published in India Today
The bells toll announcing the call for prayer. In Mylapore, the quotidian sound is subliminal, where temples and churches merge into one symbiotic whole. For Mylapore is not just known for its plethora of temples, but churches as well. After all St. Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, is said to have resided in Mylapore, beginning Christianity in the city in the first century.
One of the oldest churches, the Luz Church, was built in 1516 by the Portugals. “The legend is that five priests, on their way from Cochin to Malaysia along the Coromandel Coast, were caught in a storm and were unable to find their way, till they saw the light of Mother Mary in the distance. They steered their ship towards the light and land on the shore, on the spot where the Santhome Basilica currently stands. The light led them further inland and finally disappeared. And thus, Lady of the Light Church, or Luz Church (Luz in Portuguese means light) was born,” says father A. John Andrew.
This first church of Madras has survived many odds (Hyder Ali is said to have ransacked the church, while the Golconda forces and the East India Company have been known to have occupied it as well), while retaining the initial Portuguese architecture. Also known as “Katu Koil” or Forest Church (this area used to be a forest before), it has the famous gilded altar.
Head towards the beach and the magnificent spire of the Santhome Cathedral Basilica greets you. Said to be built in 1523, again by the Portuguese, the church is built over the tomb of St. Thomas. However, there are records that show that there was a small church here before, which was found in ruins when the Portuguese arrived in Madras.
“The church officially became a parish in the year 1524,” says father S. Kanickairaj. “In 1893, under bishop Henrique Jose Read De Silva, the church built by the Portuguese was demolished and rebuilt.” Famous for its beautiful stained glass paintings produced in Germany, the church’s architecture reflects the Gothic style of cathedrals in Europe.
For two years, from 2002 to 2004, the church underwent a massive renovation project— paintings were restored, flooring re-laid and an underground chapel created.
“The chapel is separate from the church, so it allows devotees to pray at the tomb, without hampering the church service,” explains father Kanickairaj. Santhome is today a landmark in Mylapore and a popular tourist attraction. “On Sundays, there are more than 3,000 people who attend the church service.”
The first thing that strikes you about St. Lazarus church or Our Lady of the Guidance Church is the apparent lack of windows and the apparent profusion of doors, 28 doors to be exact.
“The history of the church dates back to the 15th century when this was just a dense forest. Lepers would congregate here, and they built St. Lazarus (Lazar was the name of the leper from the Bible),” says father A. Anthony Swamy. In 1637, the church was rebuilt, and in 1928, the church, as we know it today, was reconstructed.
The St. Thomas English Church, an inconspicuous little building, welcomes you with the sounds of carol singers keeping tune with the keys of the piano. Established in 1842 by Rev. Robert Carver, the church is also known as St. Thomas By the Sea, says father N.G. Mathew.
“This church traces its history to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) mission, which is a branch of the Church of England,” he says. “The unique aspect of this church is that Robert Carver’s grave is right under the altar, which is why we haven’t disturbed the position of the church at all. It has remained exactly the same for the last 165 years.”
Known for the primary school it set up 20 years ago for the local fishing community, the church is also known to have been one of the earliest to have tackled the issue of drug abuse.
Built a few years after the St. Thomas English Church, the St. Thomas Tamil Church, adjacent to the former building, recently celebrated 150 years of existence. What began as a school initially, with services held on Sundays, officially became a full-fledged church in 1858. “This church primarily caters to the Tamil residents as services are held only in Tamil,” says father John Victor.
A popular legend of Mylapore is that it has seven temples, seven churches and seven mosques— while most of the mosques have disappeared, the temples and churches abound, leaving the count of seven far behind.
This journey of exploration, around the streets of Mylapore, through the doors of churches that stand tall, is a passage through time. While the church’s programmes might change, members might come and go, and priests might change, what remains rooted is its indomitable history ricocheting off the silent walls.