Manapad: India’s ‘Little Jerusalem’

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    Fishing villages always have so many stories to tell. Their encounters with cultures from around the world as part of India’s rich trade links leave them brimming with a heady mix of legend and lore, history and heritage, and fact and faith. Manapad on India’s east coast is one of these truly special places.

    Situated in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, Manapad means different things to different people, depending on what they worship. Sun worshippers revel in its yellow, sandy beaches and azure lagoons embellished by frothy waves racing to shore. But there are worshippers of another kind who converge here. They do not visit for the stunning hill-top vistas Manapad has to offer; these are Christian pilgrims here to pray at a church believed to hold a fragment or relic of the True Cross, or the Cross on which Jesus was crucified.

    Called ‘Little Jerusalem’ for the relic it is believed to hold (Jesus was crucified near Jerusalem), Manapad has an unusual skyline, dotted with the spires and steeples of no less than 14 churches. Among them, Holy Cross Church is most visited by Christian pilgrims as it is here that the relic of the True Cross is said to rest. It is put on public display from September 1st to 14th every year when the feast occurs during ‘Exaltation Of The Holy Cross’.

    Before the relic is believed to have been brought here in the 16th century CE, Manapad was a bustling fishing port dominated by the Paravar community. It had been a thriving port since medieval times, thanks to the pearl fishery trade. The book, Engaging South Asian Religions: Boundaries, Appropriations and Resistances by Mathew N Schmalzand Peter Gottschalk, says the village was part of the Kulasekharapatanam-Manpad port mentioned in the chronicles of the famous traveller, Marco Polo, in 1250 CE. However, it was not until 1532 CE that the Portuguese established a presence here.

    Benny Miranda, in his book, The History Of Holy Cross Church, Manapad, refers to popular folklore about a cross fashioned out of a ship’s broken mast that was planted on a hillock near the shore on Manapad by a grateful sailor in 1540 CE. It is said that the seafarer, a Portuguese captain, was on his way eastward from the Cape of Good Hope, when he was almost shipwrecked in a storm.

    The sailor apparently sheltered from the tempest at the Kulasekharapatanam port before resuming his journey, and the cross, which became the site of miracles, became known as ‘Captain’s Cross’.

    Just two years later, in 1542 CE, St Francis Xavier arrived in Manapad while conducting missionary work across Goa and South India. He stayed here for two years, from 1542 to 1544, in a cliff-side cave overlooking the sea, called Valli’s Cave, a counterpart of the Thiruchendur Murugan Temple Complex in the coastal town of Thiruchendur, 18 km from Manapad. The cave still exists there and is even accessible to visitors.

    In his work, A Historical Background Survey of the Church of South India (CSI) in Tuticorin District, C Muthu Krishnan says that St Francis Xavier performed so many miracles here that the people in and around Manapad started worshipping him as a saint long before he was canonised by the Church. The faith and piety of the people of Manapad and the swelling number of pilgrims who started to throng the fishing village led to the construction of the Holy Cross Church.

    Contributions towards building the church flowed in from the residents and the project was spearheaded by Rev Fr John de Salanova, parish priest of the only church in the village at the time, a church dedicated to the Queen of Heaven (This church doesn’t exist at present). Construction of Holy Cross Church was completed in 1581 CE and the shrine encased Captain's Cross.

    Miranda in his work says that Rev Fr John de Salanova also played a pivotal role in bringing the relic-fragment of the True Cross from Jerusalem, for which he had appealed to Rome, the seat of the Catholic Church, in 1583. The relic destined for Manapad first reached Cochin, which was then the headquarters of the Latin Diocese of India and Sri Lanka. It took three days for the relic to be taken from Cochin to Manapad, accompanied by massive crowds.

    According to Christian tradition, the finding of the True Cross is attributed to St Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine (r. 306-312). In the 4th century CE, St Helena converted to Christianity and travelled to the Holy Land in search of sacred sites. While on this mission, she is said to have found the True Cross near the site of the Holy Sepulchre (the tomb where Jesus is believed to have been buried and from where he was resurrected) in Jerusalem.

    The Cross was later recovered by Emperor Heraclius (r. 610 – 641 CE) from the Persians, who had taken it into their possession, and returned to Jerusalem. From then on, Christians celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross from September 1st to 14th, to commemorate the victory of Heraclius.

    According to Christian beliefs, around 350 CE, the True Cross was broken up into fragments, which were sent as relics to churches around the world. Many centuries later, one of these relic-fragments ended up in the fishing village of Manapad.

    In popular culture, Manapad has featured in Tamil films such as Mani Ratnam’s Kadal (2013), Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Neethaane En Ponvasantham (2012), Hari’s Singam-2 (2013) that was later remade in Hindi as Singham Returns in 2014, and Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Café (2013/Hindi).

    Travellers who come to Manapad are here to either visit ‘Little Jerusalem’ on a religious pilgrimage, or to walk in the footsteps of film stars, or experience the thrills and spills of this village, which is gaining ground as a water-sports destination.

    History, religion, leisure and adventure sports… Manapad has something for everyone.

    Cover Image: Holy Cross Church, Manapad - Veera S via Flickr


    Yash Mishra is a Delhi-based writer with a passionate interest in cinema and Indian history.

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