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Travel and retreats: From church to temple

30 January 2015

Anna Lawrence sets out to follow in the footsteps of St Thomas the Apostle, in southern India. But her encounter with Hinduism has the most profound effect


Chaotic: one of the busy streets that lead up to the Sri Meenakshi Hindu temple, in Madurai

Chaotic: one of the busy streets that lead up to the Sri Meenakshi Hindu temple, in Madurai

"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, to Cochin.

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 parish church.

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 pantheon.

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 patron.

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 worship.

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 gorgeous lakes.

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 plantations.

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 more.

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 enquiries@soulofindia.com, or visit www.soulofindia.com.

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