Expect the Unexpected: Post XXIV – Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Sufi Shrine

“Expect the unexpected” is the general catchphrase for India. Just when you think you have it figured out it goes and surprises you.


I have had two such experiences in the last couple of weeks. The first was the extraordinary experience of visiting the five great temple cities of Tamil Nadu in the south: Thanumalayan Temple in Suchindram; Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai; Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam part of Tiruchirapalli; Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur; and Thillai Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram (where the god Shiva received the title of Lord of the Dance);

Shiva Nataraja at Nataraj Temple

as well as  the giant Shivite fire phallus at the mountain Shrine of Tiruvannamalai (which I have not included a photo of).

Tamil Temple City

These vast complexes are actually cities in their own right with several gateways leading further and further into the inner sanctums. The throng of the markets in the outer circles, the constant prayers and processions of the Brahmin priests, and the mysterious vast columned labyrinthine hallways leading to obscure lonely shrines bathed only in the light of burning ghee all blend together to cast a powerful spell.


However what I found the most powerful was the realisation that I was looking straight into the past. Or at least our past as westerners. I have mentioned before that the Brahmetical Hinduism of Tamil Nadu is the last living classical religion on the planet.

Market inside the Temple Compound


What one sees in these Temple cities is what life in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and even the worship in the Temple in Jerusalem looked like. Yet here it is still going on. The businessman who stops to offer garlands of flowers or ghee and a donation to the temple priests for  a good outcome for his afternoon meeting is no different that an ancient Roman merchant offering sacrifices to the household gods before a particularly important transaction. Experiencing the life of these temples has brought the ancient world to life for me in a way that HBO’s Rome can never do, no matter how much gratuitous sex they throw in.

Sufi Shrine at Ajmer

The second unexpected thing to have happened occurred at the Dargah Sharif of the tomb of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti (1143-1235), the great Sufi Saint who brought the Chishti Order from Persia to India. This Muslim Shrine, the most important in India, is still run by the order which emphasise love, tolerance, openness, and hospitality as their guiding spiritual disciplines.  To get to the Shrine you must walk a kilometre or so through a crowded bazaar filled with beggars who actually lie in your path so you have to step over them. The crowds and noise do not cease at the shrine but, if anything, only increase. In the chaos of the shrine a quiet spoken man kept saying “Excuse Me, Sir” over and over again. I have had this happen so often in India that I ignored him as is the normal best practice. He was so persistent that I did the second best thing which was to wave him away with some guttural Hindi (never mind that I was deep in Rajasthan in Urdu territory). When this didn’t work I just confronted him directly and asked what he wanted and when he said he wanted to share with me the spirit of the Saint and Order I scoffed (priests, unfortunately make a good bit of their money tricking tourists into ‘tours’ or thrusting something into their hands like flowers and then demanding payment). I was wise to this trick so I bluntly asked him how much he wanted. He smiled at me sweetly and said something along the lines of “I know what you think I am but I’m not. Trust me for just a minute and you’ll see.” Instead of walking away, which I came very close to doing, I hesitated and did trust him (for a minute).

Khwaja Tomb Ajmer

I am glad I did. It turned out he was one of the Sufi brothers and actually a member of the governing council of the shrine. He really did want to talk with me about the nature of God. Not religion, not Islam, not Sufism, but just God. When he discovered I was a member of a religious community myself he spent a long time asking me many questions and we compared and contrasted the elements that make up our respective ‘orders’ before moving onto the dangers of religion in the modern world and our respective fundamentalisms and what we, as faithful men, could do about it.

This man actually believed in openness, hospitality and generosity and put it into practice by welcoming people to the Shrine. As he had a university education and spoke a couple of foreign languages he made a point of greeting foreigners. During my entire time in India, he is is the only person who has spoken to me about God instead of religion, doctrine, or  sectarian or caste division. I guess I should not be surprised considering he was a Sufi. Still I was. He was a great blessing to me and I am grateful for his insistence. We ended the afternoon, after having tea in the shade of a banyan tree, praying at the tomb of the Saint that all human hearts would unclench and unfold into the ever present sun of the love of God. The overpowering scent of thousand upon thousand of rose petals piled high over the tomb so that it was lost to view has probably changed the smell of roses for me forever. When I smell roses I think I will remember the Sufi Shrine at Ajmer.

“Expect the unexpected”. I should also point out, to be fair since I gripped so much before, that much of Tamil Nadu was sparsely populated and remarkably beautiful. The only crowds were in the cities. I have also found almost no trash in Rajasthan. It turns out this is partially because the poverty is so great here there is not so much to throw away as in other places but also because an army of street sweepers work around the clock. Still – to give it its due there is very little rubbish about, few stray dogs (pigs, goats, boar, water buffalo, chickens, monkeys etc.) although there are, as ever, many wandering sacred cows. The almost deserted deserts and arid southern mountains of Rajasthan are some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. There have been places where all you can hear are the numerous song-birds, the wind and the cry of peafowl. Just when you think you have it all figured out….


I now continue my hectic across the sub-continent tour of the great holy places of India. I have been to Himachal Pradesh in the Western Himalayas to the great Buddhist Monasteries of both the Dali Lama and the Karmapa Lama around Dharamsala, the ancient Hindu hill temples of the Chamba valley, as well as the Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar in the Punjab. I have also visited the Buddhist caves at Ajanta and the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain caves at Ellora. The Hindu tour of Tamil Nadu is finished (and I even managed to visit the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar).

With my visits to the last two Saint Thomas founded churches and the places of his hermitage, his Martyrdom and his Burial in Mylapore in Madras (Chennai) I have finished the Christian pilgrimage of India in the footsteps of the Apostle.

I have just come from Jaipur to visit the great Jain temples of Adinath at Ranakpur and Dilwara at Mount Abu before continuing onto the Sun Temple at Modhera in Gujarat. Then follows: the Great Stupa the Emperor Ashoka built to house the relics of the Lord Buddha at Sanchi; the great Hindu temple of Khajuraho; the ruined city of Fatepur Sikri of the Emperor Akbar where the first inter-religious conferences were established and the tomb of the Sufi saint Salim Chishti is found; Agra of the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort; the holy city and Ghats of Shiva at Varanasi - one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth; Sarnath where the Lord Buddha preached the first sermon thereby setting the ‘wheel of dharma (Dharmacakra) in motion’ and creating the Buddhist Sangha (Buddhist church or community) and where Emperor Ashoka built the Dhamek Stupa; the hill of the Lord Buddha’s Fire Sermon (the Ādittapariyāya Sutta of the Pali Canon) -

"Sabbaṃ bhikkhave (the crowd of  1000 listening) ādittaṃ – Bhikkhus, all is burning.”;

Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya the place of the Lord Buddha’s enlightenment underneath the Boddhi tree; and onto Darjeeling and Sikkim in the Eastern Himalayas where I will visit the ancient Tibetan monasteries of Rumtek, Pemayangtse, and Tashiding, as well as one of the few remaining Bon (indigenous Tibetan religion) monasteries, all which were once part of Tibet. Needless to say I will take the opportunity whilst in Darjeeling to visit some of my favourite estates (for those who do not know me I collect Darjeeling teas).

When I have finished I will have visited the most important religious sites in India of Christianity, Islam (Sunni, Sufi & Shiite), Judaism, Hinduism (North and South), Jainism, Buddhism (Mahayana, Theravada and Tibetan), and Sikhism.

I still have around ten or so Saint Basil Scholarship posts left to do, including the last few Saint Thomas churches, my summing up of my time with the East Syrians, as well as my time with the West Syrians and my audience with His Holiness. Many of these are already written but either not polished, edited or have no photos added. However these may not all get done until this summer. I will post a few more whilst I am travelling if I can find the time. I am taking a course with Charles Stang, Professor of Early Christian Thought at Harvard, this summer on the Oriental Orthodox Churches and have gained permission to write about the Saint Thomas Christians here in India. This means I will have some time to finish up in June as well as produce a professional paper at the end.

Eventually, all going according to plan, I will return. Yet, as many of you know, I do not return home as I no longer have one. Instead I come back to move to a new city, a new diocese, and new parishes. The odd thing is that for most people I have already left or I have yet to arrive whereas I am trapped in limbo – neither gone nor arrived.

I recognise that a period of distancing is necessary for those I am leaving and I hope that this period of my being completely ‘gone’ will help the necessary transition in the parish, archdeaconry and diocese I am leaving. Yet I am finding myself realising more and more that really my parish and my work was my life. I socialised with few outside of it and so I am going through a period of grieving as I know I will not return to the majority of those who made up my life for the last decade.

I also am finding that being gone this long and in an alien land strangely – hazifying. I know that this is not a word. What I mean is that without my work, without speaking to anyone I know (I am not even in e-mail correspondence with anyone), without any of my normal comforts such as pizza, tea, and science fiction I seem to be becoming hazy around the edges. I am losing definition or some part of my identity. I think this might be a jolly good thing too. Time will tell.

On a definitely positive (and vain) note I am also gaining some definition. I stayed at a hotel a few days ago that had a full length mirror in the bathroom. I have not seen myself in the mirror for almost three months (the other two places I stayed had tiny hand held mirrors which you could just about comb your hair with). I do not know how much weight I have lost but the combination of lots of exercise, little food, lots of exposure to the sun (which has made my hair and beard go blond and auburn), no alcohol, meat, or tobacco and few dairy products, and having not shaved has changed my ‘shape’ and appearance so much that I, at first, did not recognise myself in the mirror. So for the first time in probably fifteen years I have not been embarrassed to walk around without a shirt on (men must remove their shirts in many Hindu temples) or go swimming. I also have a waist again and so - new belts! The photo below is not of me.  Rather it is of a Shivite Temple priest and elephant – a common sight in the temple cities of Tamil Nadu.

Shivite Temple Elephant

The Breaking Point: Post XXVIII – Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Crowded Compartment

Let me tell you about a 2nd class Indian Rail coach. Indian trains have an elaborate and complicated class system; 1st AC (which most trains do not have), 2 Tired AC, 3 Tired AC, AC Chair, 1st Class, Sleeper, and finally 2nd class. Everything above 2nd class has to be booked ages in advance for reservation. I will not even begin to explain the complexity of the numerous types of tickets available and the different types of wait listing. There is no 3rd class. I found travelling 1st AC challenging but perhaps that was because it was an almost three day trip.

Really, Really Crowded

As a result of a a complicated set of events I will not go into, I found myself on a train in an isolated area with the choice to move to 2nd class or get off the train at the next stop and be stranded. And I really mean stranded. The system of hotels, taxis, buses, and airports a westerner takes for granted does not exist in most areas of India. Even a short distances of 30 kilometres outside of westernised areas like Bangalore is like stepping from the ‘1st world to the stone age’ as William Dalrymple puts it. I decided to move to 2nd class. Did I mention it was a 38 hour trip?

It was a 38 hour trip.

Simply put I have never experienced anything like it in my life. To say it was crowded is such an understatement as to be absurd. I was one of the lucky ones as I had a seat and for much of the trip, thanks to a kind Sikh, a window seat. Seats designed for four people held nine or even ten. The wire luggage racks overhead were also used by people for sitting or sleeping and parents would stick their small infants in them. Literally ever available space on the floor was also used to cram people into. There were even people crammed in under the seats.

Cowded Compartment II

It soon became obvious that this was going to be an endurance test like no other. I could only drink small sips of water just to keep my mouth from cracking because to drink very much would mean eventually having to make my way off the train at a stop to urinate and then get back on (my seat would have then been taken).  I saw some people somehow swinging down the aisle placing feet on people’s shoulders and heads whilst clutching luggage racks overhead. I knew I did not have the wherewithal to accomplish that monumental feat.
At one point during the night I realised that I had at least six people using me as a sleeping aid: two on the seat opposite had their feet on me or shoved under me; one had his head on my leg whilst another slumped over him onto my shoulder; two were on the floor either on top of my feet or under my seat pressed against my heels. The count is seven if you count the man asleep above my head on my bag in the luggage rack drooling on me. There was no way to move even a little as if you sat forward in your seat you would then be unable to sit back again.

I think the reality of the poverty really hit me when I watched a rat scurry in and out amongst the people on the floor and across the lap of an elderly woman. She did not move and no one else even blinked.  Arundhati Roy, in her 1997 Booker Prize winning The God of Small Things, speaks of this quiet resignation.
“But when they made love he was offended by her eyes. They behaved as though they belonged to someone else. Someone watching. Looking out of the window at the sea. At a boat in the river. Or a passerby in the mist in a hat. He was exasperated because he didn’t know what that look meant. He put it somewhere between indifference and despair. He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity. Inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence, he became resilient and truly indifferent Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening. So Small God laughed a hollow laugh, and skipped away cheerfully. Like a rich boy in shorts. He whistled, kicked stones. The source of his brittle elation was the relative smallness of his misfortune. He climbed into people’s eyes and became an exasperating expression. What Larry McCaslin saw in Rahel’s eyes was not despair at all, but a sort of enforced optimism.”
I have seen great poverty in different parts of the world but never at such close and intimate proximity for such a prolonged period. I began with an ‘escapist’ portal in the form of Kipling’s Kim which I still had four chapters left to read. However, a physically malformed young man was getting off at the next stop and was unable to reach his bag. He did not ask for help but kind of looked around hoping for help and when none came he just kind of stared up at it hopelessly. It was the hopelessness of the stare that made me jump up and push my way to where he was to get the bag for him. In so doing Kim, and my only escape, flew out of the window and into the night desert of Rajasthan.

I was very patient and even calm and although I feared that claustrophobia, panic, irritation, anger, or an emotional empathy for the poverty I was immersed in might arise unabated in my breast nothing awoke. However, that hardly means I was unaffected. I became painfully aware that what separated me from those around me was not money, or privilege, or the country I either come from, was educated in, or live in. It was something born of all three and more. I have a voice. One that can be heard above the din. Another way of saying this is that I can expect to be noticed. Those with whom I was travelling had been silenced and not just metaphorically. The blank staring looks, the lack of interaction, the indifference to surroundings, the lack of expectation of any level of comfort or human dignity all silently spoke of it.
At no time did I feel in the least bit threatened or unsafe. I guess I do not really mean me personally as it is unlikely that a male western tourist will be harassed on a train. What I mean is that, even with all the shoving and pushing to get on or off the train, or to climb over one another I did not feel or see any signs of hostility, anger or irritation. Everyone seemed calm – almost comatose. Yet at the same  time I was more than aware that this seemingly ‘quiet’ or ‘resigned’ poverty can, when aroused from its sleep be capable of acts of extraordinary anger and violence of the kind that can change history. 
The thing that stuck out was a part of India that I think is mostly hidden from most tourists. Local beggars, cripples, musicians, hawkers of everything under the sun and holy men would get on at one stop and move along the carriage to get off at the next stop and start the process again. It was fascinating. Yet the most interesting was the Magic Transvestite.

Hijra I

To be fair to the culture, Indians refer to them by their Urdu (from an Arabic root) name Hijra. They are a traditional part of south Asian culture. They are men who dress and identify themselves as women who live in community under a guru and are usually considered and classified as a third gender.

Hijra III

They are mentioned in the Karma Sutra and in both the great Hindu epics. In the Ramayana Rama orders all the men and women that have followed him into the forest before his fourteen year exile to  Ayodhya to cease to grieve for him and return home. When he returns fourteen years later he discovers that the Hijra, being neither male nor female, had stayed in the forest. So impressed was Rama by their faithfulness that he gave them the power to bestow blessings.

In the Mahabharata  Lord Aravan gives his life to the goddess Kali so that the next days battle may be won. His only wish is that he marry. As no women will marry a man who will die on the morrow the god Krishna disguises himself as a woman and marries him. An eight day feast at the Temple of Aravni in Tamil Nadu every year celebrates this marriage.

Hijra II

Hijra are often encountered in the streets or on trains going around offering blessings and it is widely believed they have the power to do so by more than just Hindus. The Hijra that spent time in my train carriage was sought after for blessings by Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims (at least the three faith adherences I could identify by sight). They are a regular part of Indian wedding and birth rituals and parties.

Harvey Fierstein

What will forever stand out in my mind though is that this Hijra sounded EXACTLY like Harvey Fierstein only in Hindi! I know many of you will think I was imagining it because Mr Fierstein played a drag queen in both La Cage aux Folles and Torch Song Trilogy (both of which he wrote). But it was the coincidence that blew me away. First I heard the voice calling out for blessings. I thought something like “gee that sounds like Harvey Fierstein” and then a holy transvestite climbs into view. Once you have Mr Fierstein’s  voice you cannot mistake it for anyone else’s. For those of you who do not know what he sounds like here is a random clip from the internet that is NOT of him receiving an award of some sort. The second a bizarre song sung on Sesame Street. I have a hard time figuring out how they managed to get him to sing it without anyone realising the possibility of anti-Semitism allegations. Really, a song about noses called ‘Everything is Coming up Noses’ sung by an Ashkenazi New York Jew in which he shoves noses onto everyone?

Anyway, it just goes to show how different the world can be. A transvestite in Western culture would never be treated with religious awe let alone respect. I need not mention the history of persecution by western religions. I will also not get into Jungian concepts of the Sacred Hermaphrodite in pagan and classical religion but simple point out that the concept of a third gender is common to most cultures. Just not ours.


Still wouldn’t it be a different church if instead of persecuting transvestites we hired them to give blessings on a Sunday? And, hey, no jokes about men already dressing up in coloured ‘dresses’ every week to do just this! I know that transvestites are not the same as drag queens (the later are entertainers) but my mind immediately jumps to finale of Pricilla Queen of the Desert (the depictions are of indigenous Australian animals and the Sydney opera house). There are few church services I have been to that could not have benefitted immensely from a drag queen blessing thrown in at some point (for those of you who lack a subtle sense of humour I would like to gently point out that I am being farcical here). 

To return to my main point, a couple of things became clear for me during that 38 hours in a second class Indian train carriage. One, is that I realised that the India I love is one typical of scholarly bookish types like myself. I Have always loved the ‘idea’ of India. The great sweeping epics, the Vedas, the ancient civilisation with its art and architecture. The philosophy and religious traditions that have so enriched the world. The treasures of mystical metaphysical poetry of the Sufis and Sikhs. That India I have not encountered. Only remnants of it. The left over shells of what once was. As a metaphor, Buddhism works well. The Lord Buddha was Indian and his entire ministry was within India. The great ancient monuments associated with him such as Bodh Gaya, Sanchi, Sarnath, the caves at Ajanta or Ellora are all in India. And yet Buddhism all but died out in India by the 13th century leaving nothing but remains and even these were forgotten until the modern era.

The India I have harboured in my breast all these years no longer exists any more than the Israel of the Patriarchs and the Prophets or the Athens of Socrates. Then again neither does the Deep South of my childhood or the Scotland of my formative years. Yet at least these places today are still are somehow ‘mine’ and I can relate to them. India, like modern Israel and Palestine or modern Greece is simple foreign, maybe not intellectually, artistically, or historically but culturally. Yet still I feel that the India of the Upanishads or the Lord Buddha that ‘was’ is still part of me just like the Greece of Plato that ‘was’ and the Jerusalem of the Apostles that ‘was’ are also. Of course I am not surprised, and this is not something that I did not already know. What is different is the resignation to it that hung so heavily on me.

I believe a few decisions were made for me then. The first is that I realised it is an illusion when I tell myself I want to minister for  periods in India or Africa or Asia. Actually I don’t. I like the idea of it but the stark reality of multi-faith settings, poverty, the heat, the crowds, the lack of resources shows it up for a vision of self delusion. I am now quite sure that I would like to spend my remaining years not just in the West but also, as I have done for the last 27 years, in the north where the springs and autumns are crisp and the winters cold and the people few.

The Christianity I have encountered in these places is also alien to me. It has a confidence and a missionary zeal that I find, frankly, frightening and somewhat repulsive in its arrogance. I have found myself on quite a few occasions in some of my more adventurous travels sitting in church or speaking to Christians and thinking that what I was hearing was not just wrong, but destructive and quite dangerous. A great deal of it I have simply found to be superstitious and really a type of folk magic. One service I attended here in India was the biggest bucket of crazy (the exact phrase I used when asked by the leader how I liked it) that I have every encountered. I will only say it is the only Christian service I have every attended where there was no reading from Holy Scripture and the Lord’s Prayer was not said. The theme, by the way, was about the signs in the news of the end of days and the demons in the people around us.

Yes, evangelical Christianity is growing, yes it has huge numbers of people. Still, by and large, it is not something I want to be associated with. I also know I have nothing to say to it. I am a product of fallen West and have been trained as an apologist and as a laudator temporis acti (praiser of the things past). The Anglican Church that I love no more exists today than the India of the Lord Buddha. Yet there is a difference. I personally experienced the last of the old style High Church Anglicanism of the British Isles and have continued to try and carry what is best in that tradition into the present. The Anglicanism I witness too does still exist in the sense that I still exist and minister.

My frequently used metaphor of the modern West is of us being a dazed group of people slowly picking our way out of the crater created by the fall of West after the second World War. I am part of the chain of people picking through the rubble seeking to save what can be saved and pass it on to future generations in the hope that it will be of help or at least add a bit of beauty to future generations. I am a product of the fall and the kind of faith and religion I adhere to only makes sense in a post medieval, post Christendom, and post-modern world. It is a ‘second tier’ type of religion if you like. It does not translate to an earlier stage, and I am almost certain, is also of little use for converting those who have lost a the basic Christian interpretive base and become wholly secular. I am well suited for this middle bit which is the time and culture in which I currently live. I am what I am - a Christian apologist during the the end days of the delusion of Christendom. So I am now almost positive the rest of my ministry will be spent in the West, if only because I would have no voice anywhere else.

One last thing that became obvious to me, that again I already knew. I need time to myself and retreats at monasteries and living alone are quite alright for me. However, I think the time of travelling alone needs to come to an end. The world is fascinating. People are fascinating. But the joy of travelling is to share the experience. It is somehow empty without someone else around, even just at the end of the day to chat with over supper. I have seen enough of the world now that I could quite happily never go anywhere new again. Not that I will not. But I think from now on, if I can not get someone to travel with me, I shall try and join others where they might already be going (if they will have me) or travel to where I already know people. In the worst case scenario I shall save my money and travel ever three years with the University of Cambridge’s Alumni group. You get an actual Cambridge Fellow leading the trip wherever it is and whatever it its theme is - Architecture of the Lower Rhine Valley or Early Mayan Civilizations for example. So you get an academic course, a professorial tour guide, and presumably interesting (or mind numbingly boring) fellow tourists.

I cannot do this again. I feel ok, but I can count the conversation I have had over the last three months on two hands. I have spoken to my father maybe three times, to an Englishman one afternoon over a cup of tea, a German for three days, a North Indian Bishop and his English wife over Sunday brunch, and another Englishman for a day out in Munnar.

I was told by my Sanskrit professor at university about the famous Hindu scholar R.C. Zaenher’s first visit to India (although knowing Zaenher’s history as an MI6 Officer it seems likely that the story is apocryphal). His brilliance as a philologist enabled him to study not only Sanskrit but also Pali and thus read the ancient texts of India and become one the of the foremost experts on Hinduism in the world. However, he had never been to India. Finally when he was elderly he agreed to give a series of addresses in India. After his arrival the local dignitaries took him to a nearby hill cave temple of Lord Ganesha. So Professor Zaehner climbed the hill, walked into the shrine, took one look at the ghee and milk covered lingam, saw the rats drinking from the Yoni, smelled the curdled milk mixed with flowers and heavy incense, turned around walked out of the cave, and vomited. He never wrote about Hinduism again. I was worried about having a Zaenhner expereince and yet now that I have I feel freed by having my world be thrown back upon itself. Instead of the prospect of an ever increasingly syncratic and exapanding indentification with other cultures to the point of dissipation I feel I can begin to re-incarnate where I am. To put this in a less convoluted way, I have travelled far enough out to not feel the need to keep going but to be happy to return to where I started and be, with God's grace, more settled.

I have always dreamed of coming to India. I am honoured to have spent time with the Saint Thomas Christians and feel privileged to have been able to see what I have and to be able to go on the ‘grand tour’ of ancient sites that I embark upon next week. Yet the reality is that it has, instead of being transformative in a new direction, rather been an exercise in exorcism. Many of the ghosts of uncertainty and doubt I had about my life and ministry have been laid to rest. I find myself much more confident of the decisions I have already made in my life, the path I have vowed myself to, and the lifestyle I have embraced.

Now I really just want to go home. How nice it will be to: breathe fresh air without stench; or drink a clean, cool glass of water without worrying about getting sick; to brush my teeth using the tap; to sleep without earplugs; to be somewhere clean without rats and mice or roaches; and most of all to be able to talk to someone.

Only seven more weeks.

POST SCRIPT: I did become ill after the 38 hour trip. I also, three days later, to avoid travelling 2nd class again spent almost $300 to travel 160 kilometres in a taxi to Mumbai to purchase a one way plane ticket to Kerala. So I do not discount the fact that having money is the same as having options.

Kottakkayal or North Paravur of the Ezharrappallikal or The Cherubim and Seraphim: Post XXVII – Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India

Ayasofya Seraphim
Kottakkayal or North Paravur/Paravoor is another location where Saint Thomas founded a church. There are two churches here. The Roman Catholic Syro-Malabar Church holds the ‘historic site’ whilst the Jacobite Church (The West Syrians under he authority of the Patriarch of Antioch) is a 16th century church with the tomb of an important Syrian Saint.
Outside of Larger Portuguese Church
The Syro-Malabar church, shown above, is another example of an Eastern Syrian church that isn’t. It is Portuguese Latin with, as usual, Western Saints many of whom are Counter-Reformation. I was so upset by this church’s claim to be ‘Syro-Malabar’ I refused to take any photographs. It looked like many rural churches I have seen in Portugal and there was nothing inside that would have made me think I was in India. The East Syrian priest I was with was unable, when I asked him, to find anything in the church that was either East or West Syrian or even Indian. Yet at least it was a proper older church. The smaller, ‘original church’, around the back, was the site of the church founded by Saint Thomas. It is brand new and, as I pointed out in a previous column, was still built in a Portuguese style!
Old new Church
Notice the angels outside the door and inside the building (you can double-click on any photograph to enlarge it). I wish I had enough time at the moment to render one of my Michaelmass sermons into a  proper column about the general trend in the church to reduce the nine Choirs (or Orders) of angels to vapid, insipid, powerless images. St Gregory the Great reminds us the angels are teleological. They are what they do and the church has identified them with the powers of creation. In other words the Orders of angels are the laws of nature – the church’s physics if you like.
Seraphim  by SamuraiX Hiko
More precisely the angels are the functions or patterns that ‘connect’ things together - including us. There is one pattern that holds the planetary bodies in motion (Newtonian Physics) and another that holds all things together at a base level (Quantum Mechanics) and another holds the various systems in the body together, another that connects us through thought and understanding or consciousness to the world around us, another that helps us discern how to properly interact  with one another and the created order, yet another connects us through love etc., etc. So when we understand something it is a connection or an angel the same way that the electro-magnetic forces in nature are, not the work of an angel, but actually an angel. I will not go on at length about which of the nine orders does what as you get the drift by now. I will, however, remind you roughly of what they are.
FIRST SPHERE -The first three are around the throne of God and are the primal forces of creation itself.
  • Seraphim (the Burning Ones) – The lovers of God
  • Cherubim – The knowers of God
  • Thrones/Ophanim – The seers of God and His Justice
SECOND SPHERE - The next three deal with the laws of nature and power.
  • Dominions – Laws of Nature
  • Virtues –  Balance
  • Powers/Authorities - Conscience
THIRD SPHERE - The last three deal with life and men, primarily as messengers.
  • Principalities – The pattern of life and Guiders of the nations
  • Archangels – The messengers and soldiers of the Great Will
  • Angels – Those that connect heart and mind to creation.
Doctor Dee
The Rev’d Doctor John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s court Astronomer called mathematics the language of the angels as did many of the other scientists/alchemists of his age. It is a way of talking about science that, by being poetic and emotive, captures the heart as well as the mind and thus can be discerned by those who are not professional scientists. The philosophical concept of the angels, especially in the understanding of the Church Fathers, was not sickly new-age sentiment.Yet it has been reduced to this. The Anglican Church of Canada’s book For All the Saints is even apologetic about the belief in Angels in its introduction to the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels and mentions believe if Angels as being similar to belief in unicorns! Arrrggg!
Angelic Choirs by Hildegaard of Bingen
Thus one of the most dynamic images or poetic languages the church has at her disposal to relate to the modern world is reduced to fat babies (cherubs or putto or putti plural come from Greek mythology as agents of Eros reinterpreted and distorted by Baroque and Rococo art and are profane images as opposed to the fierce awe-inspiring Cherubim of Ancient Near-Eastern mythology shared by the Jews, Christians and Muslims).  The one thing all our Angels have in common is that they are all terrible or awful in the proper use of these words. The manifestation of the Angel played by Emma Thompson in Angels in America is not a bad example. An angelic manifestation should be like the detonation of an atomic bomb.
I especially find the Syrian use of insipid angel imagery deeply depressing as they have the most powerful use of angelic imagery in the world. Both East and West Syrian worship have dynamic angelic themes as one of their main threads running through all their liturgies. For example here are a couple of the prayers used at services of Holy Qurbana in the East Syrian rite of Mar Addai and Mari.  
Prayer before the Chancel and Sanctuary for Sundays:
Before the glorious throne of your majesty, O My God, the high and exulted chair of your honour and the fearful judgement seat of your love’s severity and the absolving Altar which was established at your direction and the place of the habitation of your glory,  We your people, the sheep of your pasture, with thousands of Cherubim who glorify you and ten thousands of Seraphs, Seraphim, Archangels who minister to you,  bow down, worship, confess, and glorify you at every hour, O Lord of all Father, Son and Holy Spirit for ever. Amen.
Angels of Fire by Viviana Puello
The Beginning of the Anaphora of Mar Addai and Mari:
Worthy of praise from every mouth and confession from every tongue and adoration, exultation from every creature is the worshipful and glorious name of your glorious Trinity - O Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For you created the world in your grace and it’s inhabitants in your mercifulness, you saved men in your compassion, and shown great grace unto mortals. Thousand upon thousands of those on high bow down and worship your majesty, O My Lord, and ten thousand times ten thousand holy angels and spiritual hosts, the ministers of fire and spirit glorify your name and with holy Cherubim and spiritual Seraphim offer worship to your lordship.
Dore-Angelic Host
You would think they would use images that the ones I have included from great Byzantine church of Haggai Sophia, Hildegard von Bingen, Dore, Blake or even modern artists like the two I have included in this column. Instead most of the angels in most of the churches here look like this (the East Syrians are, of course, free from this taint as they do not use images). I did not take that many photographs of them simply because they were unattractive and I do not as a rule take photos of unattractive things unless I find them amusing. The angels I have encountered here have just been depressing. To be more precise, many of the angels depicted in the churches here are not angels but putti and thus pagan sexual images and not Christian angelic ones. Somehow I do not think they understand this – but then again this also goes for churches throughout the world. Still, I find it a fascinating juxtaposition that the Syrian Christians can sing the great angelic hymns of St Ephraim of Edessa and use powerful, evocative angelic imagery daily and not see the disconnect between what they are singing or saying and the images they have decorated their churches with and thus see with their eyes.  
Back to the point, at least the Syro-Malabar church had one old thing. A Persian cross. Then again no one was quite sure how old it was just that it was really, really old!
Old Persian Cross
I loved the juxtaposition of these schoolboys in uniforms leaving their private Roman Catholic school and wandering past a Theyyam poster advertising ritual possession by pre Hindu deities (see Post II). Ah, India.
School Boys with Theyyam Poster
The other church in North Paravur, Saint Thomas Cheriapally, was founded in 1566 and is a lovely church if a little dark and dingy inside.
North Paravur
The Back of the Church
Multi-tiered Oil Lamp
Jacobite Interior
The church contains the tomb of a historically very important man in the history of the Church in Kerala – the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem St.Gregorios Abdul' Galeel. This was the West Syrian bishop who came to India in after the Koonen Cross oath was taken. It is said he ‘regularised’ Archdeacon Thomas’s consecration as the first Mar Thoma Metropolitan. Regardless, one can date the continued influence of the West Syrians on the Nasrani Christians from his arrival in India. The strain of West Syrian Christianity associated with the Mar Thoma Metropolitans and the Mor Gregorios is usually referred to as ‘Malankara’, even though all Saint Thomas Christians are technically ‘Malankara’. Mor Gregorios died in 1681 and was declared a Saint by Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I on 4th April 2000.
Lamp next to Saint's Tomb 
Tomb of St Gregorious
Seraphim from Haggai Sophia

The Second Oldest Mosque in the World and a Temple Elephant Sanctuary: Post XXVI - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Cheraman Juma Masjid - Old Photo

A few kilometres away from the repulsive Christian site at Cranganore is the delightful Cheraman Juma Masjid Mosque. It was constructed by Malik Bin Deenar, a disciple of the Prophet, during Prophet’s lifetime. It is claimed (depending on how you make your list) to be the second oldest Mosque in the world being founded in the year 629AD. It is the oldest Mosque in India.

Arab traders settled in the area around the old port of Muzeris before the spread of Islam so one would expect that one of the earliest settlements of Muslims outside Arabia to be established here. This same trade route logic reinforces the earlier claims that the area saw settlements of Christians during the Apostolic Age and Jews during the Diaspora.


There is a legend that a Chera King,  Rama Varma Kulashekhara, witnessed the miraculous splitting of the moon (the famous miracle of the Prophet). Upon enquiring about its meaning he was told of the coming of a new messenger of God from Arabia. He travelled to Mecca, converted to Islam and was given the name Thajudeen, and upon his deathbed at Salalah in the Sultanate of Oman requested that his homeland be evangelised. Malik Bin Deenar was supposedly one of those sent to India to carry out the dying king’s request.

The current building has an extension on the front that is going to be removed and an underground prayer area built so the entirety of the old building can be seen.

Model of the origional Design

I was given an extensive tour and I can only say that I was most impressed by both the site, the erudition of the Imam and the conservation efforts for the future. I might also mention that, although I was in cassock, I could not have been treated with more respect, even being taken into the very heart of the structure to the holiest area. This is where the thousand year old oil lamp is kept burning.

Inside the Oldest Section

Inside the Oldest Section II

Inside the Mosque

The Temple Elephant sanctuary down the road is delightful. This is where the Hindu temple keeps all of its elephants and where the old elephants go to retire. There are over a hundred elephants here and, I believe, they each have their own mahout who looks after them.

Elephant Sactuary  I

Elephant Sactuary II

One of the regular activities is getting a bath. I can’t say I really ever tried to imagine how you would bathe an elephant but now I know how. There were at least a dozen getting a bath whilst I was visiting. I am not sure I have ever seen an animal look so contented.

Elephant Sactuary IV

Elephant Sactuary V

I also learned something new about elephants. It turns out if you condition them strongly enough when they are young it really sticks. For example if you chain their legs so they can only take short strides, you can remove the chains after a couple of years and they will always take the same strides as if they were still chained. In the next two photographs you will notice that with both this male and female they have a iron rod placed behind their ear. When they were young they were conditioned (read severely scolded) to not let this rod or stick fall to the ground. Thus the mahouts do not need a fence to keep the elephants in with. All they need is a long stick or rod to place behind the elephants ear and it will not move from the spot where it has been left.

Elephant Sactuary VI

Elephant Sactuary VII