The Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Thomas is where St. Thomas’ body was buried. It is located in the neighborhood of Guindy in Chennai (Madras), Tamil Nadu, India. Presently called St. Thomas Mount, the basilica is one of the three churches built over a tomb of an apostle of Christ in the whole world. The other two are St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City in Rome, which is the burial site of St. Peter and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which was built over the tomb of St. James. The basilica sits over the tomb of St. Thomas, who came to India in 52 A.D. after preaching on the west coast before arriving in Chennai.
Originally called Periyamalai or Parangi Malai in Tamil, the basilica is the site where St. Thomas, one of Christ’s apostles, was said to be martyred. The shrine went through some major restoration in 2004 and is now under the administration of the newly formed Catholic diocese (Latin Rite) of Chengalpattu.
The structure was built in 1523 by the Portuguese in the once Anglo-Indian populated area and was originally dedicated to Our Lady of Expectation. The altar of the shrine itself was believed to be the site where St. Thomas the Apostle died. The basilica stands atop a three hundred-foot hillock that has the fourteen Stations of the Cross at the peak. There is a stone cross that has been excavated from the site in 1547 bearing old Sassanid Pahlavi inscriptions believed to be done by St. Thomas himself. The cross is known as the Bleeding Cross because of its bloodstain-like appearance that reappears after scrubbing it off. The stone cross is built into the wall at the altar.
Valuable oil paintings of Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles adorn the shrine. There is an old painting of The Madonna, which is considered to be the oldest oil painting in India which hangs above the altar. This was thought to be done by Luke the Evangelist himself and was consequently brought by St. Thomas with him to India.
An underground chapel that is a new addition to the site has a separate access from the basilica where tourists and pilgrims are allowed to stay and pray at the tomb without troubling the sanctity of the sacred items in the main basilica. During Easter, thousands of religious and faithful Catholics climb the one hundred and sixty steps that lead up to the top of the mount while singing hymns and saying the Way of the Cross prayers. The steps are made of granite which is sponsored by a merchant by the name of Petrus Woskan to make it easier to climb to the top. Petrus Woskan was also said to be responsible for the oil paintings and elaborately-carved pulpit inside the shrine.
A museum exhibiting artifacts related to St. Thomas and the basilica is showcased and has items bearing images of St. Thomas and the national shrine. Some of these items are even sold that make great items to bring home to family and friends. A theater screening a short film about the life of St. Thomas completes the tour of the Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Thomas, a definite must-see when in Chennai.