The Hand of Saint Thomas

Early Christian histories tell of how St. Thomas, the Apostle, travelled to Parthia, Socotra, and finally to India, where he was killed. And we know little else. But the ancient settlement of Mylapore where St. Thomas died still exists as a suburb of Chennai, and there you may yet hear two very different accounts of his last days.

The Brahmins' tale

In the days after the Sangam, there came to Mayilai (as Mylapore was then known) a foreigner of the name Thoma. He told a most strange story, of how a man had been born in the West, who was the Son of God, how he had been crucified and had risen from his grave. Many who heard him preach became his disciples, and Thoma grew bolder. One day, he entered the great temple in Mayilai. Standing in the sanctum sanctorum, he called the presiding deity a false God, unworthy of worship, and challenged him to strike him down if he indeed had the power. And, in that instant, a trident fell from its fastenings on the wall, and pierced Thoma in the heart.

When his followers sought to bury him, they found that his hand remained outstretched and pointing, as it had been at the moment of his death. The strongest amongst them could not fold it back. So it was that he was buried thus, and thus he remained till his followers came from across the sea many years later to claim his remains.

But if you leave the agraharam, and head southwards, you will come to a place known as Periyamalai, or "the big mountain". On the top of the hill, you will find a small church, and an ancient standing cross, erected in memory of St. Thomas. And the priests there tell the story differently.

The priests' tale

When St. Thomas came to Mayilai, the king of that land had already received news about his work, and he refused to permit St. Thomas to enter his lands. So St. Thomas repaired to a cave in the nearby hill of Periyamalai, where he spent his time in meditation. Yet the news of his holiness spread, and many began to follow him. This angered the Brahmins, who ambushed him one day when he was in prayer, and speared him. He turned around, and pointed an accusing finger at his attackers. His face glowed with an angelic light, and the attackers fled in terror. And then, he died.

But then a wonder came to pass, for when his grieving followers buried him, they found that his hand continued to point, as if still accusing those who slew him. And thus he was buried, with his outstretched hand projecting out of his grave. As the years passed, the hand remained incorrupt, till one day, some robbers tried to cut it off. As soon as they had touched it, the earth shook, and his hand slowly slid back into his grave.

We will never know which, if either, of these is true, yet the reference they both make to his outstretched hand remaining outside his grave give pause for thought.