Re-imagining St Thomas the Apostle’s epic backpacker adventure in the south India of 50-70 AD

Zac O’Yeah (a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist based in Bengaluru) has a superb piece in the Hindu Business Line. A kind of piece which tells you so much about economics and history than several books on the subject.

He travels through villages of Kerala to figure history of St Thomas travels:

I jump off the bus in the coastal Kerala town of Kodungallur. As far as I can make out I’m the only tourist here, which is a relief considering how Kerala tends to be overrun with backpackers and rich foreigners in search of ayurvedic rejuvenation. But I am soon to learn that thousands of years ago Kodungallur was as infested with foreigners as any beach resort is today.

Walking past the typical small-town businesses — laminators and pharmacies, a biriyani joint called City Restaurant, an Internet café offering ‘100% Job Oriented Computer Courses’, the Sitara Beauty Collection that sells gift items, the Cranganore Muziris Bakery, and showrooms for Sansui and Sony home entertainment products — I sense an overall vibe of comfort. A neat little town.

It’s a little hard to believe, but this humble municipality was once a royal capital of the mighty Chera kings, who were very welcoming to people from the West. Even though the Chera dynasty lent their name to the modern State, Kerala, there are no remains of their palace except a jungly compound known as Cheraman Parambu to the east of town. A rickshaw driver offers to take me there and the place is so tucked away that he has to stop and ask for directions time and again.

I’ve read archaeological descriptions of the spacious palaces for emperors, mansions for their ministers, shrines for their gods, and halls and theatres. Now, nothing is left. I take a walk and poke around a bit when I hear children scream at me. They make strange, swaying gestures with their hands. As I listen carefully, I make out what they’re shouting:

‘King Cobra! Watch out! King Cobra!’

Scrambling off and stage-diving into the waiting rickshaw, I consider the astonishing fact (once I’ve caught my breath, that is) that there is still a ‘king’ living in the compound.

Having paid my respects to the kings of yore, I move on to explore other sights: a mosque, a temple and a church. These turn out to be pretty modern structures, but their traditions go way back. For example, the small Cheraman Juma Masjid is said to have been founded during the prophet’s lifetime, making it one of the few mosques in the world with such an ancient pedigree. It is believed to have been converted from an abandoned Buddhist monastery gifted by a Chera king to Arab traders, possibly in return for helping make his port so prosperous. Therefore, the Cheraman mosque was named to honour the king. By 629 AD, when the original mosque was inaugurated, this had been a vital harbour for hundreds of years.

A longish piece but worth it.

Kerala and its amazing history barely finds any mention in textbooks on either economic or political history. But this is how it should start especially in economics. There is so much to learn and figure from this piece of land which was just so productive so long ago…


3 Responses to “Re-imagining St Thomas the Apostle’s epic backpacker adventure in the south India of 50-70 AD”

  1. MS Says:

    Amol, interesting thread on history ! Following so soon on doubting the reality quotient our homegrown myths like Mahabharata…

    The Apostle story itself is very doubtful, possibly an attempt by the Portuguesian invaders to backdate their historical claims, and cleverly adopted by today’s Christendom to claim historical equality with Hinduism in the south, and also sustaining their persecution myth as practiced world over.

    Stories such as these, carried in the garb of Kerala tourism, just help give it the stamp of acceptance. Which is sadly denied to our own mythlogies

    • Amol Agrawal Says:

      Hi MS. I was actually just thinking about you in the morning that it has been a while that I got a comment/reality check from you. I should have realised that a post on religion is the best way! I agree we have not done anything to take forward discussion on our mythologies. But what to do? We are ourselves to be blamed.

      • MS Says:

        :)) the bait was juicy!!

        In my opinion, some of the best thought in India on this today happens in languages outside mainstream English. I would leave a detailed comment on the Mahabharata entry

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