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