My parents came to India in 1952 to spread the ‘gospel’ of Jesus to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and lukewarm Catholics. The first European missionaries came to India not just with the English in the 17th century but with Vasco da Gama in the late 15th. Go to Goa and you’ll find the tomb of St. Francis Xavier who preached to the dalits and marginalized, which have always been the most sure base of support for Christianity in the subcontinent.
But the Europeans were late on the scene. Indian Christian communities (probably converted from among members of the Cochin Jewish community) were active along the SE coast of India in the late 2nd century AD. In the 4th and 5th centuries Christian leaders in present day Iraq and Syria were sending regular missions to India. Southern Hindu kingdoms offered political asylum to Christian refugees from Iran in the same period. The Syrian Christian community, large and influential throughout southern India dates from these early forays.
But go further back and you’ll discover the tradition that one of the original 12 disciples, the Doubting Thomas, was the first to bring the gospel to India. His mission may have planted seeds but he himself, according to the legend, was murdered by Brahmins on what is now St. Thomas Mount, on the outskirts of Chennai. The world’s oldest existing church structure, which was believed to be built by Thomas the Apostle in 57 AD, called Thiruvithamcode Arappally or Thomaiyar Kovil as named by the then Chera king Udayancheral, is located at Thiruvithancode in Kanyakumari District of Tamil Nadu, India. It is now declared an international St. Thomas pilgrim center.
In more modern times, an elaborate neo gospel has developed that claims Jesus learned his esoterica in India to which he came prior to starting his ministry and to which he returned after being crucified.
Jesus of Nazareth is no stranger to India.
A few years ago I was travelling to India very regularly and I began documenting how he is depicted in public art. Most of these pictures were taken in the south where Christianity has deep and ancient roots and portray Jesus in the main with non-Indian features. Yet he is not entirely Western as well….more Middle Eastern which is appropriate considering the potted history I’ve outlined above.
Outside the old Armenian church in Blacktown area of Chennai, little stalls sell framed pictures of Jesus.
The famous (but now no more) Moore Market in Chennai offers living-room size photos of the praying Christ.
Jesus’s image is often called upon to express the glory of India’s religious and spiritual diversity…and ultimately it’s secularism. this is a public water tank in Tamil Nadu.
In a restaurant/hotel in Trichur, Kerala, the Founder and Guiding Light shares the stage with the original Founder and Guiding Light.
Along the sidewalks of Calcutta, a picture of Jesus along side another Hindu saint does seem to illustrate his resemblance to South Asian features.
The local auto-rickshaw driver’s union draws inspiration and strength from Marx-Lenin and Jesus. Chennai.
Chennai. Jesus is an Indian icon, along with Mahatma Gandhi, the Bengal tiger and the sari.
Chennai is a great city for wall art. Here a mural of Jesus blesses passersby hurrying home in the evening.
Delhi. Interesting juxtapositioning of posters show the reassuring hand gestures of Jesus of Nazareth and Sai Baba of Shirdi.
A laneway in Triplicane, Chennai, illustrates India’s acceptance of Jesus as one among equals.