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National Geographic - THE APOSTLES

In the Footsteps of the Apostles - FREE Feature Download

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They were unlikely leaders. As the Bible tells it, most knew more about mending nets than winning converts when Jesus said he would make them "fishers of men." Yet 2,000 years later, all over the world, the Apostles are still drawing people in.

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By Andrew Todhunter
Photograph by Lynn Johnson
Issue: March 2012

In the town of Parur, India, in the southern state of Kerala, the polished stone floor of the old church of Kottakkavu gleams so brightly that it mirrors the crimson, pine green, and gold-upon-gold altarpiece like a reflecting pool.

Around the altarpiece, painted clouds hover in a blue sky. Small statues stand in niches backlit with brilliant aqua. On a rug near the church wall a woman in a blue sari with a purple veil covering her hair kneels motionless, elbows at her sides, hands upraised. In a larger, newer church adjacent, a shard of pale bone no bigger than a thumbnail lies in a golden reliquary. A label in English identifies the relic as belonging to St. Thomas. On this site, tradition says, Thomas founded the first Christian church in India, in A.D. 52.

In Parur and elsewhere in Kerala exotic animals and vines and mythic figures are woven into church facades and interiors: Elephants, boars, peacocks, frogs, and lions that resemble dragons–or perhaps they are dragons that resemble lions–demonstrate the rich and decidedly non–Western flavor of these Christian places. Brightly painted icons are everywhere, of Thomas and the Virgin Mary and Jesus and St. George. Even Hindus pray to St. George, the dragon slayer, believing he may offer their children protection from cobras. At Diamper Church in Thripunithura a painted white statue of the pietà–the Virgin Mary holding the dead Jesus–is backed by a pink metal sun radiating rectangular blades of light.

Kerala's Thomas Christians–like Christians elsewhere in Asia and in Africa and Latin America–have made the faith uniquely their own, incorporating traditional art, architecture, and natural symbolism. And so a statue depicting Mary flanked by two elephants shading her head with a bower seems at home among the palms of southern India.

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Andrew Todhunter is at work on a book about St. Mark and early Venice. Frequent contributor Lynn Johnson travelled to six countries for this story.