Mike Aquilina

Hindu Traditions of St. Thomas

Monday May 21st 2007, 3:09 am

A visitor named Justine recently made a major contribution to our ongoing discussion of the traditions of St. Thomas the Apostle in India. “I picked up this story travelling through Kerala,” she writes. “I think it is worth researching.” I’m pasting her entire message below. Justine adds: “The credit for writing this article should go to Ms. Paula Gruber, a German tourist who visited India/Kerala in 2005. I was responsible for translating it from German to English.”

THONDACCHAN AND THE FOUR SILVER COINS

The worship of Thondachan, a Hindu family deity, by a particular lineage of Nairs (native martial clan) of Malabar, Kerala, and especially the manner and ritual of this worship is noteworthy. Though a family deity, Thondachan is never worshipped within the Nair household. Nor has this deity been ever given a berth among the pantheon of Hindu gods at any of the Hindu temples presided over by the Brahman priests (called Namboodiris). Thondachan has a special altar built outside the Nair family compound, where non-Brahmin priests perform rituals. While Chaamundi, Vishnumoorthy, Pottan, Rakteshwari and Bhagavathi became the non-Aryan non-Brahmin deities for the village folk of Kolathunaad (an ancient province of North Kerala) along with other primitive spirits and folk-heroes, Thondachan has an even smaller following among a select Nair clan. It is believed, that up to the present day, altars for Thondachan’s worship exists in the Cherukunnu area in Kannur (Cannanore) district, especially in the lands surrounding old tharavad houses (ancestral mansions) of the Nairs.

When Thomachan (the apostle St. Thomas, – achan, signifying ‘father’) came ashore, landing at Maliankara near Moothakunnam village in Paravoor Thaluk in AD 52, (this village located 5 kilometers from Cranganoor (Kodungallur), Muziris, on the coast of Kerala), some of his followers as well as other sailors and merchants were suffering from a severe form of scurvy. Thomachan himself suffered from a sore throat which he chose to ignore, and which grew steadily worse, until no voice emanated from his lips for many days. A local Jew named Matan took the weary travelers to a local Nair tharavad (locally known as Kambiam Vallapil), in the province of Kolathunaad, a territory comprising the present Cannanore District and Badagara Taluk of Kerala State.

It is said that at the time of Thomachan’s arrival at the Nair tharavad, the Nair karnavar (landlord or head of family) lay injured from a grievous wound that had been inflicted upon him in a feudal duel. Upon seeing this, Thomachan sat beside the injured man and meditated, laying his hands on the man’s head, his throat, his chest and his groin. Immediately the karnavar felt relieved from pain, and his healing was hastened. Within a day he was up and about, his wounds nearly healed.

In return, the Nair household offered shelter to the strangers and called upon their family physician to cure the scurvy that the travelers suffered from, as well as Thomachan’s severely infected throat. Nellikaya (Emblic Myrobalan or Indian Gooseberry) based potions prepared by the tharavad was used to cure the sea-worn voyagers. In an act of gratitude, Thomachan is said to have blessed them, and gave them four silver coins saying, ‘May these coins bestow my guru’s blessings upon you and your household, for take heed when I tell you that the money I pay you today is anointed with the blood of my guru’.

This holy man, Thomachan, is believed to have related a curious story to the members of the tharavad, which has been passed down the ages.

Before he set sail from a seaport in the region called ‘Sanai’ somewhere in the western seas, he had witnessed the persecution of his guru, who was tortured and nailed to a wooden cross and left to die. He spoke of how his guru returned from his ordeals three days later, fully cured. His guru handed him the silver coins saying, ‘my body was sold with these, and now they have been returned to me, all thirty pieces. Put them to good use, as I have. Though you shall choose to travel by sea, I shall meet you again in the mountains of the land where you will finally arrive.’

The Nair tharavad later migrated further north to the Cherukunnu area of present day Kannur. They referred to the four silver pieces as ‘rakta velli’ (blood silver) or ‘parindhu velli’ (parindhu for eagle, as one face of all these four ancient coins bear the figure of an eagle). They also decided never to utilize the silver as it was the custom then not to part with the gift of a guest.

Over time, and with the advent of Christianity, the significance of the four silver coins received by the tharavad was understood, but family history is still obscure as to whether Thomachan possessed, or what he did with the remaining twenty-six pieces of silver his guru gave him.

This Nair family never converted to the Christian faith as did many others in that region. Subsequent migrations of Nair clans continued throughout history, but the story of the four rakta velli pieces was passed down the generations, as did their veneration for the holi sanyasi Thomachan, (later called Thondachan, a nickname perhaps coined from the story of his sore throat, -thonda for throat. Another story goes that the name Thondachan was adopted in the early 16th century to avoid persecution by the Portugese). Thus by a curious turn of events, the apostle St. Thomas was transformed into a Hindu deity for an ancient Nair clan of Kerala.

A present day member of this family is still in possession of the four pieces of silver. i have seen the four pieces and have identified them as the Shekels of Tyre, a common coinage of Judea of the time of Christ.