The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xviii.

Discoursing of the Place where Lieth the Body of St. Thomas the Apostle; and of the Miracles Thereof.

Illustration: Ancient Cross with Pehlevi Inscription on St. Thomas’s Mount, near Madras. (From Photograph.)

The Body of Messer St. Thomas the Apostle lies in this province of Maabar at a certain little town having no great population. ’Tis a place where few traders go, because there is very little merchandize to be got there, and it is a place not very accessible.1 Both Christians and Saracens, however, greatly frequent it in pilgrimage. For the Saracens also do hold the Saint in great reverence, and say that he was one of their own Saracens and a great prophet, giving him the title of Avarian, which is as much as to say “Holy Man.”2 The Christians who go thither in pilgrimage take of the earth from the place where the Saint was killed, and give a portion thereof to any one who is sick of a quartan or a tertian fever; and by the power of God and of St. Thomas the sick man is incontinently cured.3 The earth, I should tell you, is red. A very fine miracle occurred there in the year of Christ, 1288, as I will now relate.

A certain Baron of that country, having great store of a certain kind of corn that is called rice, had filled up with it all the houses that belonged to the church, and stood round about it. The Christian people in charge of the church were much distressed by his having thus stuffed their houses with his rice; the pilgrims too had nowhere to lay their heads; and they often begged the pagan Baron to remove his grain, but he would do nothing of the kind. So one night the Saint himself appeared with a fork in his hand, which he set at the Baron’s throat, saying: “If thou void not my houses, that my pilgrims may have room, thou shalt die an evil death,” and therewithal the Saint pressed him so hard with the fork that he thought himself a dead man. And when morning came he caused all the houses to be voided of his rice, and told everybody what had befallen him at the Saint’s hands. So the Christians were greatly rejoiced at this grand miracle, and rendered thanks to God and to the blessed St. Thomas. Other great miracles do often come to pass there, such as the healing of those who are sick or deformed, or the like, especially such as be Christians.

[The Christians who have charge of the church have a great number of the Indian Nut trees, whereby they get their living; and they pay to one of those brother Kings six groats for each tree every month.1]

Now, I will tell you the manner in which the Christian brethren who keep the church relate the story of the Saint’s death.

They tell that the Saint was in the wood outside his hermitage saying his prayers; and round about him were many peacocks, for these are more plentiful in that country than anywhere else. And one of the Idolaters of that country being of the lineage of those called Govi that I told you of, having gone with his bow and arrows to shoot peafowl, not seeing the Saint, let fly an arrow at one of the peacocks; and this arrow struck the holy man in the right side, insomuch that he died of the wound, sweetly addressing himself to his Creator. Before he came to that place where he thus died he had been in Nubia, where he converted much people to the faith of Jesus Christ.4

The children that are born here are black enough, but the blacker they be the more they are thought of; wherefore from the day of their birth their parents do rub them every week with oil of sesamé, so that they become as black as devils. Moreover, they make their gods black and their devils white, and the images of their saints they do paint black all over.5

They have such faith in the ox, and hold it for a thing so holy, that when they go to the wars they take of the hair of the wild-ox, whereof I have elsewhere spoken, and wear it tied to the necks of their horses; or, if serving on foot, they hang this hair to their shields, or attach it to their own hair. And so this hair bears a high price, since without it nobody goes to the wars in any good heart. For they believe that any one who has it shall come scatheless out of battle.6

NOTE 1. — The little town where the body of St. Thomas lay was MAILAPÚR the name of which is still applied to a suburb of Madras about 3–1/2 miles south of Fort St. George.

NOTE 2. — The title of Avarian, given to St. Thomas by the Saracens, is judiciously explained by Joseph Scaliger to be the Arabic Hawariy (pl. Hawariyun), ‘An Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Scaliger somewhat hypercritically for the occasion finds fault with Marco for saying the word means “a holy man.” (De Emendatione Temporum, Lib. VII., Geneva, 1629, p. 680.)

NOTE 3. — The use of the earth from the tomb of St Thomas for miraculous cures is mentioned also by John Mangnolli, who was there about 1348–1349. Assemani gives a special formula of the Nestorians for use in the application of this dust, which was administered to the sick in place of the unction of the Catholics. It ends with the words “Signatur et sanctificatur hic Hanana (pulvis) cum hac Taibutha (gratiâ) Sancti Thomae Apostoli in sanitatem et medelam corporis et animae, in nomen P. et F. et S.S.” (III. Pt. 2, 278.) The Abyssinians make a similar use of the earth from the tomb of their national Saint Tekla Haimanot. (J.R.G.S. X. 483.) And the Shiahs, on solemn occasions, partake of water in which has been mingled the dust of Kerbela.

Fa hian tells that the people of Magadha did the like, for the cure of headache, with earth from the place where lay the body of Kasyapa, a former Buddha. (Beal, p. 133.)

Illustration: The Little Mount of St. Thomas, near Madras.

NOTE 4. — Vague as is Polo’s indication of the position of the Shrine of St. Thomas, it is the first geographical identification of it that I know of, save one. At the very time of Polo’s homeward voyage, John of Monte Corvino on his way to China spent thirteen months in Maabar, and in a letter thence in 1292–1293 he speaks of the church of St. Thomas there, having buried in it the companion of his travels, Friar Nicholas of Pistoia.

But the tradition of Thomas’s preaching in India is very old, so old that it probably is, in its simple form, true. St. Jerome accepts it, speaking of the Divine Word as being everywhere present in His fullness: “cum Thomâ in India, cum Petro Romae, cum Paulo in Illyrico,” etc. (Scti Hieron Epistolae, LIX, ad Marcetlam.) So dispassionate a scholar as Professor H.H. Wilson speaks of the preaching and martyrdom of St. Thomas in S. India as “occurrences very far from invalidated by any arguments yet adduced against the truth of the tradition.” I do not know if the date is ascertainable of the very remarkable legend of St. Thomas in the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, but it is presumably very old, though subsequent to the translation of the relics (real or supposed) to Edessa, in the year 394, which is alluded to in the story. And it is worthy of note that this legend places the martyrdom and original burial-place of the Saint upon a mount. Gregory of Tours (A.D. 544–595) relates that “in that place in India where the body of Thomas lay before it was transported to Edessa, there is a monastery and a temple of great size and excellent structure and ornament. In it God shows a wonderful miracle; for the lamp that stands alight before the place of sepulture keeps burning perpetually, night and day, by divine influence, for neither oil nor wick are ever renewed by human hands;” and this Gregory learned from one Theodorus, who had visited the spot.

The apocryphal history of St. Thomas relates that while the Lord was still upon earth a certain King of India, whose name was Gondaphorus, sent to the west a certain merchant called Abban to seek a skilful architect to build him a palace, and the Lord sold Thomas to him as a slave of His own who was expert in such work. Thomas eventually converts King Gondaphorus, and proceeds to another country of India ruled by King Meodeus, where he is put to death by lances. M. Reinaud first, I believe, pointed out the remarkable fact that the name of the King Gondaphorus of the legend is the same with that of a King who has become known from the Indo–Scythian coins, Gondophares, Yndoferres, or Gondaferres. This gives great interest to a votive inscription found near Pesháwar, and now in the Lahore Museum, which appears to bear the name of the same King. This Professor Dowson has partially read: “In the 26th year of the great King Guna . . . pharasa, on the seventh day of the month Vaisákha.” . . . General Cunningham has read the date with more claim to precision: “In the 26th year of King Guduphara, in the Samvat year 103, in the month of Vaisákh, the 4th day.” . . . But Professor Dowson now comes much closer to General Cunningham, and reads: “26th year of the King, the year 100 of Samvat, 3rd day of Vaisákha.” (See Rep. of R. As. Soc., 18th January, 1875.) In ordinary application of Samvat (to era of Vikramaditya) A.D. 100 — A.D. 43; but the era meant here is as yet doubtful. Lassen put Yndoferres about 90 B.C., as Cunningham did formerly about 26 B.C. The chronology is very doubtful, but the evidence does not appear to be strong against the synchronism of the King and the legend. (See Prinsep’s Essays, II. 176, 177, and Mr. Thomas’s remarks at p. 214; Trübner’s Record, 30th June, 187; Cunningham’s Desc. List of Buddhist Sculptures in Lahore Central Museum; Reinaud, Inde, p. 95.)

Here then may be a faint trace of a true apostolic history. But in the 16th and 17th centuries Roman Catholic ecclesiastical story-tellers seem to have striven in rivalry who should most recklessly expand the travels of St. Thomas. According to an abstract given by P. Vincenzo Maria, his preaching began in Mesopotamia, and extended through Bactria, etc., to China, “the States of the Great Mogul” (!) and Siam; he then revisited his first converts, and passed into Germany, thence to Brazil, “as relates P. Emanuel Nobriga,” and from that to Ethiopia. After thus carrying light to the four quarters of the World, the indefatigable Traveller and Missionary retook his way to India, converting Socotra as he passed, and then preached in Malabar, and on the Coromandel Coast, where he died, as already stated.

Some parts of this strange rhapsody, besides the Indian mission, were no doubt of old date; for the Chaldaean breviary of the Malabar Church in its office of St. Thomas contains such passages as this: “By St. Thomas were the Chinese and the Ethiopians converted to the Truth;” and in an Anthem: “The Hindus, the Chinese, the Persians, and all the people of the Isles of the Sea, they who dwell in Syria and Armenia, in Javan and Romania, call Thomas to remembrance, and adore Thy Name, O Thou our Redeemer!”

The Roman Martyrology calls the city of Martyrdom Calamina, but there is (I think) a fair presumption that the spot alluded to by Gregory of Tours was Mailapúr, and that the Shrine visited by King Alfred’s envoy, Sighelm, may have been the same.

Marco, as we see, speaks of certain houses belonging to the church, and of certain Christians who kept it. Odoric, some thirty years later, found beside the church, “some 15 houses of Nestorians,” but the Church itself filled with idols. Conti, in the following century, speaks of the church in which St. Thomas lay buried, as large and beautiful, and says there were 1000 Nestorians in the city. Joseph of Cranganore, the Malabar Christian who came to Europe in 1501, speaks like our traveller of the worship paid to the Saint, even by the heathen, and compares the church to that of St. John and St. Paul at Venice. Certain Syrian bishops sent to India in 1504, whose report is given by Assemani, heard that the church had begun to be occupied by some Christian people. But Barbosa, a few years later, found it half in ruins and in the charge of a Mahomedan Fakir, who kept a lamp burning.

There are two St. Thomas’s Mounts in the same vicinity, the Great and the Little Mount. A church was built upon the former by the Portuguese and some sanctity attributed to it, especially in connection with the cross mentioned below, but I believe there is no doubt that the Little Mount was the site of the ancient church.

The Portuguese ignored the ancient translation of the Saint’s remains to Edessa, and in 1522, under the Viceroyalty of Duarte Menezes, a commission was sent to Mailapúr, or San Tomé as they called it, to search for the body. The narrative states circumstantially that the Apostle’s bones were found, besides those of the king whom he had converted, etc. The supposed relics were transferred to Goa, where they are still preserved in the Church of St. Thomas in that city. The question appears to have become a party one among Romanists in India, in connection with other differences, and I see that the authorities now ruling the Catholics at Madras are strong in disparagement of the special sanctity of the localities, and of the whole story connecting St. Thomas with Mailapúr. (Greg. Turon. Lib. Mirac. I. p. 85; Tr.R.A.S. I. 761; Assemani, III. Pt. II. pp. 32, 450; Novus Orbis (ed. 1555), p. 210; Maffei, Bk. VIII.; Cathay, pp. 81, 197, 374–377, etc.)

The account of the Saint’s death was no doubt that current among the native Christians, for it is told in much the same way by Marignolli and by Barbosa, and was related also in the same manner by one Diogo Fernandes, who gave evidence before the commission of Duarte Menezes, and who claimed to have been the first Portuguese visitor of the site. (See De Couto, Dec. V. Liv. vi. cap. 2, and Dec. VII. Liv. x. cap. 5.)

Illustration: St. Thomas Localities at Madras.

As Diogo de Couto relates the story of the localities, in the shape which it had taken by the middle of the 16th century, both Little and Great Mounts were the sites of Oratories which the Apostle had frequented; during prayer on the Little Mount he was attacked and wounded, but fled to the Great Mount, where he expired. In repairing a hermitage which here existed, in 1547, the workmen came upon a stone slab with a cross and inscription carved upon it. The story speedily developed itself that this was the cross which had been embraced by the dying Apostle, and its miraculous virtues soon obtained great fame. It was eventually set up over an altar in the Church of the Madonna, which was afterwards erected on the Great Mount, and there it still exists. A Brahman impostor professed to give an interpretation of the inscription as relating to the death of St. Thomas, etc., and this was long accepted. The cross seemed to have been long forgotten, when lately Mr. Burnell turned his attention to these and other like relics in Southern India. He has shown the inscription to be Pehlvi, and probably of the 7th or 8th century. Mr. Fergusson considers the architectural character to be of the 9th. The interpretations of the Inscription as yet given are tentative and somewhat discrepant. Thus Mr. Burnell reads: “In punishment (?) by the cross (was) the suffering to this (one): (He) who is the true Christ and God above, and Guide for ever pure.” Professor Haug: “Whoever believes in the Messiah, and in God above, and also in the Holy Ghost, is in the grace of Him who bore the pain of the Cross.” Mr. Thomas reads the central part, between two small crosses, “+ In the Name of Messiah +.” See Kircher, China Illustrata, p. 55 seqq.; De Couto, u.s. (both of these have inaccurate representations of the cross); Academy, vol. v. (1874), p. 145, etc.; and Mr. Burnell’s pamphlet “On some Pahlavi Inscriptions in South India.” To his kindness I am indebted for the illustration (p. 351).

[“E na quelle parte da tranqueira alem, do ryo de Malaca, em hum citio de Raya Mudiliar, que depois possuyo Dona Helena Vessiva, entre os Mangueiraes cavando ao fundo quasi 2 braças, descobrirão hua + floreada de cobre pouco carcomydo, da forma como de cavaleyro de Calatrava de 3 palmos de largo, e comprido sobre hua pedra de marmor, quadrada de largura e comprimento da dìtta +, entra huas ruynas de hua caza sobterranea de tijolos como Ermida, e parece ser a + de algum christão de Meliapor, que veo em companhia de mercadores de Choromandel a Malaca.” (Godinho de Eredia, fol. 15.)— MS. Note. — H.Y.]

The etymology of the name Mayiláppúr, popular among the native Christians, is “Peacock–Town,” and the peafowl are prominent in the old legend of St. Thomas. Polo gives it no name; Marignolli (circa 1350) calls it Mirapolis, the Catalan Map (1375) Mirapor; Conti (circa 1440) Malepor; Joseph of Cranganore (1500) Milapar (or Milapor); De Barros and Couto, Meliapor. Mr. Burnell thinks it was probably Malai-ppuram, “Mount–Town”; and the same as the Malifatan of the Mahomedan writers; the last point needs further enquiry.

NOTE 5. — Dr. Caldwell, speaking of the devil-worship of the Shanars of Tinnevelly (an important part of Ma’bar), says: “Where they erect an image in imitation of their Brahman neighbours, the devil is generally of Brahmanical lineage. Such images generally accord with those monstrous figures with which all over India orthodox Hindus depict the enemies of their gods, or the terrific forms of Siva or Durga. They are generally made of earthenware, and painted white to look horrible in Hindu eyes.” (The Tinnevelly Shanars, Madras, 1849, p. 18.)

NOTE 6. — The use of the Yak’s tail as a military ornament had nothing to do with the sanctity of the Brahmani ox, but is one of the Pan–Asiatic usages, of which there are so many. A vivid account of the extravagant profusion with which swaggering heroes in South India used those ornaments will be found in P. della Valle, II. 662.

1 Should be “year” no doubt.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24