"THERE are more than 33 million gods and goddess in Hinduism,"
our guide, Prabu, tells us as our shuttle bus hurtles through the
streets of Chennai, India, before heading on to an overpass. At the
turn, a white column rises, and there, on top of it, is a statue of
Christ, his arms open and raised as if to bless the hectic scene on
the tarmac below.
If you go on foot, the city streets are a mixture of the chaotic
and the colourful, the energetic and the filthy. We are overwhelmed
one minute by the sweet scent of flowers from the markets, and
overcome the next by the sewage in the street. Shops and
street-side cafés jostle alongside shrines and temples; nothing is
without colour or life.
I am on a pilgrimage. But, had I been asked a few months ago,
India would not have been on my list of Christian pilgrimage sites.
The Portuguese had a similar train of thought: missionaries arrived
on the east coast in the 1400s to establish a Christian community,
only to find one already thriving.
It is St Thomas - Doubting Thomas, the patron saint of India -
who is given the credit for this, and it is in his footsteps that
my group (three priests, one Reader, and six independent
travellers) are following, although the word "pilgrimage" is a
loose term, because our tour will mix visits to Christian and Hindu
sites alongside trips to the market and the beach.
St Thomas is said to have landed in India in AD 52, at the city
of Cochin, on the west coast. His missionary journey supposedly
took him to Chennai, on the east coast, where, it is said, he was
martyred (and his original tomb was said to be sited). We are
travelling in reverse, from Chennai, then to Tiruchirappalli, the
temple city of Madurai, the hilltop town of Munnar, and, finally,
On Sunday morning, in Chennai, we have one of three meetings
with the Anglican community during our trip: the old colonial Fort
St George is now government offices, a museum, and a church: St
Mary's, founded in 1678, and believed to be the oldest Anglican,
now Church of South India, church in India.
The congregation of 80-strong Indian worshippers is led by a
woman priest; the eucharist is in English; and we sing hymns from
old copies of Hymns Ancient & Modern. Apart from the
tea, served with four teaspoons of sugar, and the palm trees
visible through the glassless windows, we could be in any English
IN CONTRAST, the temples are riotous places of worship; and the
Sri Meenakshi temple, in Madurai, is the epitome of this.
Madurai is built with the temple at its heart: all roads lead to
the temple, and the energies of its inhabitants are directed
towards it with startling velocity. "Indians love pollution, be it
sound, dirt, or light," Prabu tells us.
We remove our shoes and pass beneath one of Sri Meenakshi's
160-foot high gopurams (gate towers), decorated with 1511
painted statues of the gods. We step right-foot first, for
prosperity; and, on the other side, are greeted by the temple
elephant, waiting to bless devotees by patting them heavily on the
head with its trunk.
As non-Hindus, we are asked to pay ten rupees (about ten pence)
for the privilege, which goes towards the temple's upkeep. Each of
the bigger temples has its own elephant - a sacred representation
of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of wisdom, "remover of
obstacles" and the most widely worshipped god in the Hindu
Hindus believe in a supreme being, whose presence is found in
every atom, we are told. From this one god comes a trinity of
deities: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. These three also have numerous
manifestations, consorts, and offspring, each with a different
purpose and affiliation, adding up to the 33-million total - more
than enough for each town and village to boast its own unique
protector, each profession its own guardian, and each day its own
Inside Sri Meenakshi, we discover two main shrines, and wedding
halls, markets, and colonnaded walks. In the Hall of a Thousand
Pillars, we watch "lunch" being served to a statue of Shiva. Music,
played while he "feasts", pervades the temple.
Had we been here at daybreak, we could have witnessed Shiva and
his wife, Meenakshi, being "woken" (taken from their bedchambers,
washed, and dressed); but at various points throughout the day the
gods are paraded through the temple, and we watch devotees jostle
to circle them as a mark of respect. When darkness falls, they will
be "taken to bed", we are told, carried by priests on individual
palanquins, shrouded in white silk.
AN IMPORTANT premise for this pilgrimage is to see how the faith
of others can inform our own. Just a few days into our itinerary,
we have already observed how the day starts with a trip to the
local temple, stopping off at a flower market for garlands to be
given as offerings.
Sunday worship is alien here: after prayers, they go to work,
never far from a temple or roadside shrine. Small statues of
Ganesha can been seen on the dashboard of most vehicles, a small
piece of fruit by his side or a string of petals around his neck.
God is present in all things, and at all times, in whatever
manifestation his followers need.
In Tiruchirappalli, we observe how the mindfulness of Hindu
devotion can be translated into Christian practice when a few of us
are given the chance to visit a Christian ashram.
The Saccidananda Ashram of the Holy Trinity was founded by two
French Fathers, in 1950, and is home to a community of Benedictine
monks who use Hindu methods of prayer and meditation in their
The ashram is a peaceful, wooded complex of thatched huts and
open-air meeting places. There is a small octagonal church with a
gopuram considerably smaller than its Hindu counterparts
and decorated with statues of Christ.
We meditate and pray in the church, and eat tasty, simple food
in silence. Our morning eucharist is in Tamil, the local dialect,
and English, interspersed with chants.
After an afternoon lecture, food, and prayers at 9 p.m., we
return to our huts, exhausted by the heat and by a day dedicated to
thoughtfulness (the silence and peace are a shock after the volume
of the city). We stay one day and night, but a week is recommended
(accommodation is on a donation basis).
From Madurai we head east, then into the Kannan Devan hills,
1500 feet above sea level. Densely forested, the hills ooze
wildlife, and waterfalls flow down from their summits, filling
Our ascent to Munnar reveals a landscape dynamic in the height
of its peaks, and in the depth of its valleys, colour, and beauty.
Tea plantations appear like blankets over the hills, and dashes of
colour move in between the green-tea trees, in the cloth-wrapped
heads of tea pickers as they make their way through the
There is a much greater concentration of Christians here,
encouraged by the British tea-planters who arrived in the 1800s. As
we travel up one hill and down another, church spire after church
spire rises above the tree tops, painted brilliant white. In the
hills it is a blissful 200C, and, in our short sleeves, in stark
contrast to the locals swathed in puffer jackets and balaclavas, we
admire the plantations.
WE REACH the west coast on our arrival in Cochin, not far from
where St Thomas is said to have landed. A boat trip on the last
day, through the swampy backwaters of the region, gives us a peek
at the river communities; their riverside churches are said to be a
legacy of St Thomas. We hold a eucharist on deck, and try to assess
the experiences of the past two weeks.
I take home with me a sense of how faith has a place in work and
in rest, and a new mindfulness of the devotion of others.
But I also leave with a nagging curiosity about what was missed
down alleyways not taken. We travelled more than 450 miles and saw
only a fraction of India - a handful of its peoples, and their
different cultures. A taste of India has left me hungry for
Anna Lawrence travelled as a guest of Soul of India.
Soul of India's next "In the Footsteps of St Thomas" tour, led
by Canon Tony Fensome, will take place from 24 September to 8
October. The 15-day trip costs £2450, including flights,
accommodation, and half board. There are subsidised places
available for those wishing to familiarise themselves with the
country, with a view to leading a group themselves. For more
information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit