Cordileone’s pilgrimage to India
Chennai (Madras) – Time with an apostle
Day 4: Monday, Jan. 2
Today we flew to Chennai (Madras), the principal city
in the state of Tamil Nadu in the southeastern corner of the country and
a significant site of the missionary activity of St. Thomas the Apostle,
as attested to from ancient tradition.
Our first stop was the spot of his martyrdom. I spent good amount of time
in prayer in the Eucharistic Adoration chapel. It gets a lot of business,
and is frequented by Hindus as well as Catholics.
Once again, the devotion of the people was quite evident in their prayer
before the Blessed Sacrament. We also celebrated Mass in the Cathedral
of the Archdiocese, which is built over the spot of St. Thomas’
ancient burial place. It boasts of being only one of three Basilicas built
over the known tomb of one of the 12 apostles, St. Peter’s in the
Vatican and Santiago de Compostela in Spain being the other two. (More
recent excavations beneath the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the
Walls in Rome have unearthed evidence that it stands over the tomb of
the Apostle to the Gentiles.)
In between these two stops we visited another Hindu temple; this time,
I wanted to see something a little more typical, without so much of the
Western, commercial influence of the first temple we saw.
The gatekeeper, who told us where to go to check in our shoes, decided
to be our personal tour guide – he said he would tell us things
that aren’t in the tour book. Since I didn’t check a tour
book, I can’t say for sure if he was right, but it seemed to me
that he was.
He explained to us the practice of painting the forehead: the white ash
represents that we will return to dust. He said something about it being
made from cow dung, which is burned and then blended in with the mixture.
He brought us to the threshold of the temple, where there was a large
plate of the white ash; the next thing I knew, he rubbed some of it across
my forehead, wishing me a long life. Well, I thought, his wish for me
was a gesture of good will, and this entire idea certainly has very close
resonances with Ash Wednesday.
So we continued on the tour, where I gained more knowledge of Hindu mythology
and the lessons of life it can teach us. We also had another step to go
with the forehead-painting scenario: beneath the horizontal line of white
ash, between and slightly above the eyebrows, is placed a red dot made
called the bindi to represent the “third eye.”
The concept of the eye has a prominent place in Hindu thinking, and explains
the use of heavy and elaborate makeup around the eyes of the dancers I
had seen perform. The idea is that the eye represents God who sees everything,
and our quest for spiritual enlightenment. For us, that translates into
seeing with the eyes of faith, certainly a most appropriate prayer in
this land of St. Thomas!
Another facet of the trip worth mentioning here, as with just about any
foreign travel, is the cuisine. For our lunch we were treated to thali,
samples of different dishes from Southern India. The vast array of spices
was amazing, as was the meticulous elaboration involved in preparing them
to mix in with the recipe.
As just one example, I had a chicken dish with a sauce prepared initially
with cardamom, cinnamon sticks and cloves, to which later is added coriander
ground up to not quite a powder, fennel and various types of peppers.
I learned that Kerala is the largest spice-exporting region in the world.
Given that, along with what I tasted, it’s no wonder the Portuguese
invested large sums of money, time and energy to explore this part of
the world in search of spices.