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The Elephanta Caves

The Elephanta Caves , located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, about 11 Km off the coast of the Gateway of India, Mumbai, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to these caves, excavated probably in the 6 th century CE, is awe-inspiring, and also thought-provoking. Over the years, I have visited the caves a number of times, and also attended a number of talks by experts in the fields of art, history and archaeology on the caves. Together, they help me understand these caves, their art, and the people they were created for, just a little bit better. Every new visit, every new talk, every new article I read about the caves, fleshes out the image of what the island and the caves would have been like, at their peak. I last wrote about the caves on this blog, in 2011, almost exactly 11 years ago. Since then, my understanding of the caves has, I would like to think, marginally improved. Hence this attempt to write a new and updated post, trying to bring to life, the caves of Elephan

St. Thomas in Kochi

The landmark for our homestay in Fort Kochi was the Marthoma Church. In spite of multiple visits to Kerala, this was the first time I had heard the name, and on asking, was told that the word Marthoma referred to a sect of Christians, the followers of St. Thomas. Over the next few days, as we explored Kochi and its heritage, St.Thomas seemed to pop up everywhere. He had arrived in India, bringing the word of Christ, eager to spread the gospel, in Muziris, present day Kodungallur.

St. Thomas arriving in India, depicted as a mural in the St. Thomas Pontifical Shrine

Even back in AD 52, when St. Thomas arrived, the residents of the region were familiar with other religions. There was extensive trade with the Arabs, as well as Romans, Phoenicians and Greek, and foreigners were probably a common sight, and accepted as such. Tolerance was high, and St. Thomas promptly succeeded in converting a bunch of orthodox Brahmins to his fold. 

Conversion of the Orthodox Brahmins...
painted on the ceiling of the Kottakavu Church

We heard many stories of the miracles and conversions, and it was difficult to decide where history ended and legends began. One thing was clear though. That St. Thomas was an ardent Christian, who successfully drew masses under his wing, and, within the span of a few years, set up eight churches to spread the faith. None of the original structures remain today, and in their place, stand new churches built in more recent times, with varying concepts of architecture and interesting ideas of ostentation.

A Stained glass window in the Kottakavu Church

We originally had no intention of visiting any of the (many) St. Thomas associated churches in the region. However, when one of the caretakers at the Cheraman Masjid advised us to visit the St. Thomas Pontifical Shrine, we decided to take his advice, and did.

A view of the St. Thomas Pontifical Shrine

This grand structure is evidently a recent one, and one which borrows heavily from some of the grandest churches in the western world. Standing on the banks of the Periyar, near the Azhikode Jetty, the location certainly is picturesque. The shrine commemorates the landing of St. Thomas in India, and houses a relic of the saint – a bone from his right arm – brought from Italy and enshrined in a tabernacle shaped like a heart, arteries, veins and all!! 

Inside the Pontifical shrine. Note the imaginative tabernacle on the right

If you are want more information, check out their website.

The only other church we visited was the Kottakavu Church, which marked one of the earliest among the mass conversions attributed to Saint Thomas. It is said that he convinced a group of orthodox Namboodiris to convert here. It is also said that the temple which originally stood here was consecrated as a church when the temple elephant carried a cross made by St. Thomas inside and placed it in the sanctum. Neither the original temple nor the church built over it stands today. The old church itself has been rebuilt a number of times, and due to lack of space, a new church has also been built right behind. This church also holds a relic of the saint.

The new church at Kottakavu

The relic of the saint inside the new church

Today, most people visit the new church and only a few head to the old church to offer prayers.

Paintings on the walls and ceilings of the new church at Kottakavu

The altar in the old church at Kottakavu

Paintings on the ceiling of the old church at Kottakavu

The old church at Kottakavu

The only sign of older structures is an ancient wall, which is still preserved.

The old wall... it remains the only remembrance of an older monument here

As I mentioned before, St. Thomas established eight churches in this region. They are sometimes called the ‘Seven and a half Churches of St. Thomas’, since the eighth one is considered a ‘half-church’, whatever that means. The pontifical shrine isn’t one of them, though. These churches are…
  • Malliankara, Kodungallur
  • Kottakavu Church, North Paravoor
  • Niranam
  • Palayoor
  • Nilackal (Chayal)
  • Kollam
  • Thiruvithancode, which is the ‘half-church’.

It would be interesting to visit all these churches sometime. Even more interesting would be to follow St. Thomas’ footsteps across Kerala and Tamilnadu, but that is for another trip! 

P.S. Interestingly, there is another Thomas who also figures in this region – Thomas of Cana, who led a group of Christians migrating from the Middle East to India, sometime in AD 345. They too are followers of St. Thomas, but have their own sect, and are known as the Knai Thoma... We stumbled on a memorial to this Thomas while visiting the Kottapuram fort!


  1. Fascinating! It's very interesting to see the architecture and hear a little about the history of Christianity in India. A very Catholic interpretation, especially the shrine where the relic is housed. And a little spooky, too, to think of approaching that shrine to pay respects or to pray. Hmmm...

    1. Thank you Natalie! The history of religions in India is truly fascinating. The thought that they all managed to live in relative peace makes me wonder why there is so little tolerance today.

  2. loved the stained glass and the cieling decor



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