There hangs on one of the walls of the Lahore Cathedral, a small framed cross. This is the famous Taxila Cross found just outside the ruins of Sirkap in 1935. This was a time when a book titled The Acts of Saint Thomas was well known. Discovered in 1822 in Syria, the book told of how St Thomas, having been assigned by Christ to preach the Gospel to the Indians, arrived by boat in the capital of King Gondophares.
But Gondophares was not interested in the Gospel. He instead gave some money to the saint and ordered him to build a royal palace. St Thomas, however, gave out all of the money in alms and when the king discovered this mischief, he ordered for the saint to be burnt alive. Meanwhile, the king’s brother, Gad, died and then miraculously came alive again. He recounted that in heaven he had seen a palace built for Gondophares by St Thomas.
The king pardoned the holy man and, so the Acts records, all the people of the capital, with their king in the lead, converted to the ‘one and only true religion’. Now, we know that Gondophares was the Parthian king of Taxila in the first century CE. We also know from the work of Apollonius, a Greek philosopher, who visited the king and dined with him in 44 CE, that he was a Zoroastrian.
But when the cross was found in 1935, it was taken as a sign of the spread of Christianity to this part of the world as early as the years immediately after the death of Christ. If poor and not-so-educated local Christians went wild with the joy of discovering how long fellow believers had lived in this land, there was no dearth of Raj officers who also foolishly fell into this trap.
No notice was paid to the fact that the cross was not found in any datable stratum of the ruins, but by a farmer tilling a field outside the ruins of Sirkap, the second city of Taxila. The cross ended up with the wife of the Rawalpindi DC and thus became an instant celebrated talisman. At some point in time, a festival was instituted. Every year on October 8, believers congregate in the ruins of the palace of Gondophares near the south end of Sirkap. There they have a jolly do which I have unfortunately never been witness to.
What neither the idiot DC knew, nor, too, the poor Christians who celebrate the great age of Christianity in Punjab, is that the cross was not a symbol of worship in the first century CE, the time that St Thomas lived. Even fewer realise that the cross and its variation, the swastika, are two of the earliest symbols known to man and that both have had talismanic significance in dozens of cultures across Asia, Africa and Europe. This importance goes as far back as the time Homo Sapiens began to create their first cave art, that is, 20,000 years before they built their first cities.
Minucius Felix, a Christian writer, (circa 200 CE) records that Christians “neither want nor worship crosses as the pagans do”. He was writing at a time when the Romans still executed by crucifixion and the cross was associated with the suffering of Christ. It was not until crucifixion was abolished by Emperor Theodosius (reigned 379-95), that its cruel and oppressive connotation finally began to lose its meaning. It was only after the beginning of the 5th century that the cross became a symbol of faith recalling the suffering of Christ.
It is interesting to note that Apollonius notices Gondophares to be a just king and a man of high learning who valued the study of philosophy and spoke, besides his mother tongue, chaste Greek as well. That he had fine taste and every trapping of royalty. Whenever the fictitious Acts was complied (and it does show itself as a later and fictitious work), the writer having got a measure of good king Gondophares from the work of Apollonius, deemed the king worthy of conversion to Christianity. And so it was that Gondophares posthumously became Christian.
This is not the only case of posthumous religious conversion, however. The Muslims of the subcontinent have done the same for Alexander the Macedonian. Anything for the greater glory of religion!
Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2011.