Thondachan's Gift of Four Silver Coins - The Shekels of Tyre

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A small clan of Hindu warriors received a "gift of silver" from the Apostle St.Thomas around 52 AD when he landed on the Malabar coast (present-day Kerala, South India). The gift constitutes four silver coins believed to be from among the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot by the temple priests. They have been positively identified as the Shekels of Tyre, the currency of Judea at the time of Christ. These silver relics are being held by this family in fear and confusion as they do not know which denomination of Christians the coins should be handed to.

As with all Christian relics, these coins are mired in controversy. Firstly, the evidence of their existence lies with a Hindu household who have been unwilling to put it up for public viewing or exhibition fearing attack and ridicule from some Christian radicals who had demanded their surrender to the church some 40 years ago. They were examined by expert numismatists who concluded that these were coins “manufactured” by the Jerusalem priests themselves (this does not mean they do not constitute the 30 silver pieces paid to Judas) as there did exist “Jerusalem fakes” even during the time of Jesus. Silver was being melted and minted by the silver-smiths of the temple to produce poor facsimiles of the original Shekels of Tyre, the temple tax of that time.

When the Portuguese first heard of these coins, they tried to hunt it down and persecuted many Hindu families in the 16th century during their efforts to Latinize the Nazarine Christians of Kerala . These coins were again the subject of controversy early in the 20th century when it was about to be handed over to a denomination of Christians from the USA for a price.

Over the years, except for an occasional mention at the pulpit, the existence of these coins were quite forgotten until some journalists inadvertently spoke to an old lady of this Hindu family as part of a general interview on their customs and traditions. Paula Gruber, a German national broke the story to the media, once again raising a noisy controversy both in Germany and Kerala. Following the disclosure the family members were particularly piqued as they did not wish to be drawn into any debate over what they held sacred for so many years. It is interesting to note that they worshipped St. Thomas as “Thondachan”, but did not worship Christ or convert to Christianity.

The deity of Thondachan represents a temple custodian and is believed to be the “grand ancestor.” The shrine of Thondachan is at the upper citadel ( called “mele kottam”). The offerings for him include, beetle leaves, areca-nut and dried rice. His idol is that of a bearded divinity with bow and arrow on his left hand and a sword in his right, weapons that the sailors in his entourage carried. His citadel serves as the site of performance for two forms of oracle dances namely “Vellattom” and "Kaliyattom". The Hindu adaptation of St.Thomas worship represented him as Vaishnava and Shaiva, thus revered as Vishnu-Shiva in single form (as Guru (teacher) and Vaidya (physician)). In addition he is also worshipped as Sani (another Hindu deity), a misplaced reverence arising from confusion in the folk-lore because St. Thomas had told the Nair family that he had set sail from a place called “Sanai.”

The term "Shekels" was not known to the Hindu family to whom the coins were gifted by St. Thomas. They referred to the coins as "Rakta Velli" or Blood-Silver and “Parindu-Velli” or “Eagle-Silver”.

Paula Gruber virtually went down on her knees begging forgiveness of this family of Kerala for having published this article many years ago in a German newspaper.

Paula's article was about the “St. Thomas and the four silver coins” folklore that she had encountered during her travels in Kerala. For Paula it was like salvation, for she had been tracking this story ever since she heard of the four coins from her father, as a child during the Second World War years.

Paula’s only lapse was that she had initially agreed to hear the story from the family elders and examine the sacred coins on condition that she would not speak of it again to anyone. The family in possession of the coins was not keen to have the media and the church authorities tail them if the story broke out, especially after a couple of bitter experiences with a group of local Christian youth many years ago.

In a sense, Christianity is more an Indian religion than it is western, because the religion was practiced, preached, propagated, and accepted in India before it was embraced by us in the West. St. Thomas the Apostle was a contemporary of Jesus, and following the crucifixion he traveled to India, reaching Kerala in 52 AD. Christianity reached us in the British Isles in only about 200 AD or even later perhaps. The four silver coins are proof of this, and Paula was very much carried away by this notion. She saw no harm in publishing a small article in a German newspaper. Of course she was not to know that both she and her travel agent were going to be swamped by so many phone-calls. Matters came to a head when some inquiries from as far as the United Kingdom and the US began knocking at the Kerala family’s door.

Today, as one witnesses more instances of Hindu fundamentalist attacks on churches in India, one cannot but wonder what would become of these sacred Christian relics. While we await a miracle, we can only hope that four pieces of silver that survived 2000 years in relative safety in Hindu hands would survive for a few more years.

nuisance history by irfan shaikh

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