There is an old belief that Jesus Christ survived the crucifixion and spent his last years in Kashmir. Those who subscribe to this theory cite as evidence the Rozabal shrine in Srinagar, which is purported to maintain the earthly remains of the Christian prophet, and a minor body of literature.
Most serious historians and theologians debunk the idea of a tortured man crossing thousands of miles to die in a strange land. But then again, the conventional story is no less fanciful.
What is incontrovertible is that Jesus, regardless of his exact date and mode of arrival, is as much a god of India as any other local deity.
You don’t have to walk too many furlongs through the streets of India before bumping into the man from Galilee. His image, as also those of his family and more famous followers, are attached to churches and convents.
But what has interested me more is discovering Christ in surprising places. Or in unexpected company, such as next to the Goddess in her myriad forms.
Transporters in South India are never shy of plastering vehicles with images of their favourite deity. But this bus near Thrissur in Kerala caught my eye for its multiple loyalties. The trident in the Om forcefully pushes the eye upward towards Jesus in the right-hand corner, from where he offers peace to all. Maybe the owner of the bus is hedging his bets.
Wherever the secular-versus-Hindu debate takes India in the next few years, it will nevertheless be a task to rid the urban landscape of scenes such as this one in Chennai's Triplicane neighbourhood. In this instance, Christ is not so much a representative of a faith or creed, as he is a community leader. A Presence overseeing the interests of his followers.
Is it a coincidence that these two posters were laid side by side at an open-air art shop in outer Delhi? It is unlikely that the stall owner is Christian, yet his arrangement speaks volumes. The gestures of the two men signal reassurance, suggesting that at least some idea of Jesus’s message is commonly known. Though in this instance, Jesus could pass for an Indian (Kashmiri?), the placement of a large English rose next to him sends a signal that this is, in fact, a non-native.
Although Indian consumers are comfortable with images of Christ being placed together with Hindu gods and gurus, as these souvenir plates in Delhi illustrate, Jesus is still an immigrant. There is no getting around his European features this time. And once again the artist has adorned the image with roses. Perhaps some see him as foreign-born but part of the national DNA.
Liberation theology, which taught that opposition to human rights abuse and political oppression were as much a part of Christ’s message as eternal salvation, never caught on in India as it did in Latin America.
But in Chennai, the local Auto Rickshaw Drivers Union has appropriated Christ’s radical message of earthly liberation to rally and encourage its members. Jesus as Communist agitator, anyone?
In the end, for millions of Indians, Jesus is first and foremost a spiritual guide and saviour. In a hotel in Kerala the founding father of the company is humble enough to eschew the garland of flowers. But not quite enough to avoid appropriating the Saviour’s title.