Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Taxila Cross

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In Lahore Cathedral, there hangs on the wall, at the upper end of the nave in the recess to the right, a small cross in a glass frame. The inscription below records that it was found in 1935 and donated to the church by Mrs Cuthbert King (Mr King then being the Deputy Commissioner at Rawalpindi). Nothing surprising about a cross in a church, except that this particular relic goes by the name of the Taxila Cross. Because it was found just outside the fortification wall of Sirkap (one of the ruined cities of Taxila), it is taken by believers as a sign of the arrival of Christianity in our part of the world at the time that Sirkap lived.


This cross would never have come to be celebrated if a manuscript titled The Acts of Saint Thomas (an apostle of Jesus) had not been discovered in distant Syria back in 1822. This document narrates how the apostle arrived by sea in the capital city of King Gondophares in order to impress the pagan king with the gospel. But instead of lending an ear, the king lent the apostle some money and told him to build a royal palace for him. Now, St Thomas, being a man of god, squandered the money in alms. When the king inquired about progress, the apostle said that his alms giving had built a royal residence for the king in heaven.

Gondophares was furious and ordered the apostle's execution. But before that could take place, the king's brother Gad died. Now, Gad ascended to heaven where he was shown a palace that St Thomas' alms giving had indeed prepared for his brother. Thereafter he was permitted to return to his worldly life. Gad now interceded with the king and had the apostle's execution stayed. This being such an overwhelming miracle, not only the king but his entire realm converted to Christianity. Since that time Christianity, it is believed, has been one of the major belief systems in the subcontinent. St Thomas then travelled on and is believed to have died in Chennai (India).

In the 1860s Alexander Cunningham postulated that the series of tumuli known as Dheri Shahan (Mound of Kings) could be the site of long-lost Taxila. Following this lead, the city was excavated by John Marshall in the third decade of the 20th century. It was then it became common knowledge that the city that The Acts of St Thomas would place on the seaboard was actually a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. As for Gondophares' rule over Taxila, there can be no doubt because there is substantive numismatic and written record to support it. The Taxila that this king ruled over is today known as Sirkap. Indeed, the main street that one walks on; the ruins one sees are those laid out on the orders of Gondophares as he rebuilt his city after the devastating earthquake of the year 25 CE. 

And, at the south end of the street, is the palace with its audience room and raised dais for the throne where the king held court. That the Taxila Cross was found right outside the fortification walls of this ancient city and because the city is mentioned in Acts, it is proof enough for believers that Christianity was practiced here in the time of Gondophares. The throne room has duly been dubbed the Dais of St Thomas where he orated to win the multitudes of Taxila to the Righteous Path.

Without even going into the whether or not of St Thomas' visit to India, it is essential to discuss the cross as a symbol. Experts say that being the easiest to render, the cross has always been a useful symbol and together with the swastika (simply a stylised cross) makes the oldest pair of talismans in the east. In Europe, the cross was a commonly used symbol for the Celts and the Scandinavians as early as a millennium and a half before the advent of Christ. Even in Taxila, coins found from its earliest strata that pre-date Christ by centuries are marked with crosses. Secondly, the Taxila Cross was discovered outside the ruins and not in any identifiable stratum of the ruins. Therefore it cannot be dated. And so it goes without saying that its assignation to the time of St Thomas is entirely wishful and erroneous.

But the clincher is that in the first centuries after the passing of Christ, the cross was not a symbol of worship. That was a time when the Romans routinely executed people on the cross making it a symbol of oppression. Even as late as about 200 CE, Minucius Felix, a Christian writer, stated that the Christians 'neither want nor worship crosses as the pagans do'. It was not until after the Roman emperor Theodosius (reigned 379-95) had abolished death by crucifixion that the cross lost its cruel and oppressive connotation and became a symbol of faith recalling the suffering of Christ.

Here is what must have happened. By about the year 900, the name of Taxila was lost; the poor remnant of that once-glorious city was now known by names connecting it to the legend of the Buddha feeding his blood to a hungry tigress. Therefore the Acts of St Thomas would have been written when the city's location was forgotten, even though its memory vaguely persisted. As for Gondophares, history shows him to be a just and equitable king. And so whoever wrote the Acts having heard the renown from folklore and knowing him to be a benevolent ruler considered Gondophares a person worthy of being converted by St Thomas. It did not matter to the writer if this conversion was to be posthumous!

Nor do these historical facts matter to good and faithful Catholics in Pakistan even today. Every year on the eighth day of October, they gather there amid the ruins of Gondophares' palace to celebrate the event that never took place: the visit of St Thomas, apostle of Jesus, who preached from the dais. So far as the Catholics are concerned, this day in a year shortly after the passing of Jesus Christ marked the advent of Christianity in the ancient land of the Sindhu River. However, while the Catholics celebrate, the Protestants of Pakistan sniff at this festival. For them this is the worst form of idolatry.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 9:00 AM,

5 Comments:

At July 5, 2014 at 10:30 AM, Anonymous meher said...

Fascinating.......

 
At July 5, 2014 at 10:49 AM, Blogger S D said...

Nicely done :)

 
At July 5, 2014 at 6:03 PM, Blogger pilgrim said...

Very interesting ..thanks for this post

 
At July 5, 2014 at 11:54 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

I have seen this cross but never knew its history.

 
At July 7, 2014 at 9:52 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you everybody. glad to know this story helped.

 

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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