St Thomas pneumatherapy

Early Kerala history and St Thomas pneumatherapy

In our tradition, “St Thomas pneumatherapy” is one of the earliest historical references to the ancient healing art of atman-jiva cikitsa happens when St. Thomas arrived in a South Indian port city in 52CE. In the Kerala history of the northern areas mentioned below, he was referred to as Father or Grandfather Thomas, or Thomachan (Thondachan) in the local dialect. When Father Thomas’ ship arrived, the crew and passengers were inflicted with scurvy. Father Thomas was taken in by a household who extended their hospitality. There, Thomas would be able to recuperate before continuing his journey. They treated him with concoctions of the Goosberry. However, the patriarch of the kind household was dying from infected wounds sustained in a feudal duel. Father Thomas, being sick himself, nevertheless sat down next to the patient and did what pneumatherapists still do today. It is said that “he meditated, then laid his hands on the patients’ brow (ajna chakra) and his chest (anahata chakra), then his throat (vishuddhi chakra) and his groin (muladhara chakra); doing healing”—text in brackets my addition. Within days, the patriarch was up and about and lived to duel again when it was required of him to protect his small clan.

St Thomas trained Nayar Women in pneumatherapy

Thomachan did not leave Kerala before training some women in the skills of what we know today as pneumapathy. Today, Thomachan is honoured as a household protector, temple guardian and reverent ancestor in the northern parts of Kerala. He is also revered at the annual festival of Theyyam where he appears as a bearded deity. During Theyyam , each area honours its own protective deity, and for the group of Nair people of these areas, that deity is Father Thomas.  His idol is that of a bearded divinity with bow and arrow on his left hand and a churika (a type of knife used by healers) in his right. His citadel serves as the site of performance for two forms of oracle dances namely Vellattom and Kaliyattom. The former representing Vaishnava and the latter representing Shaiva elements respectively. Thondachan thus traverses the main Hindu cults and is revered as Vishnu-Shiva in single form, as Guru and Vaidya (physician).

Pneumapathy has a long history of development, much older than this 1st century story. It is said that Thomachan taught female students that he learned his healing skills at the feet of his guru, when the guru traveled in the West. He spoke of his friend, an Indian woman of whom he said, “she is my mentor” as someone who also learned, years earlier from the same guru. He called that woman “Mari, from the land of Magadha”.  Before Thondochan left the Nair community, he gave them for silver coins as a token of his gratitude for their hospitality. He related an interesting story as to the origin of the coins. In the tradition of the Nair, Thondochan told that his guru had given him the money when they were together in the land of Sinai. His guru gave him the money after he was crucified by the Jewish people of that land. His guru sent him to India to work, and told Father Thomas Thondochan to use the money as he wishes.

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This video shows a Thomachan Vayanattu ((grand)Father Thomas Physician) Theyyam. Note how, only once the spirit of Thomachan Vayanattu had possessed the shaman/dancer, that is when the headdress is added to signify the deity is now fully present. The human eyes are closed so as to allow the deity to navigate the body.

Another story about the closing of the eyes goes that Thondachan once drank so much alcohol that he could not see, and Lord Shiva led him to safety, and for that reason Thomachan had so-called “silver eyes” (still today, the Nair people use alcohol which is forbidden in Hinduism and Islam, and is highly taxed in India).

Some villages regard Thomachan as an incarnation of a Hindu God. At this time in the dance, the deity carries a flaming incense of coconut fiber, with which he heals and blesses the village and its inhabitants. He seems to use the flame to find his way, his “silver eyes” not being good at night (did Thomas suffer from night blindness, after the survey perhaps?). The flame is later placed on the altar, which completes the ceremony and assures the blessing presence of the deity in their midst for another year. The deity carries a bow and a surgeon’s knife, which he must abandon at a precise moment toward the end of the ceremony. The bow signifies the historic person’s diet; he would hunt to feed himself, therefore he is a meat eater and not a local, not a customary vegetarian. The Nair people traditionally traverse the religions of the area, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam but hold only a few of the customs; they are a people unto their own and are known to eat meat, use alcohol, have strange sexual morals and dating customs, much of which is blamed on Thomas’ influence in the areas where Thomachan is revered.

See this article for more about the unorthodox customs of the Nair .

Two Facebook pages about Thomachan Theyyam in two different areas of Kerala , the one in the town of Pappinisseri, Kerala and the other at the Thondochan Ksetram  in Kannur, Kannur of district. Note how most Theyyams use the natural herbal orange/red makeup for different deities, but with differences in facial makeup and other small items of change in the whole of the costume to depict the particular deity that is worshiped. It is not always easy for an outsider to understand the differences between theyyam of different deities. Also, stories of the deities in theyyams change over time as performers’ oral tradition get slight changes over time.

More about the concept of Theyyam, Wikipedia