Aleyamma Mathew had a traumatic first pregnancy punctuated by fits. Troubled by her condition, the couple, members of the Orthodox Syrian church and residents of Mavelikara, decided to visit the famous Metropolitan of Parumala for prayer. As the revered priest laid hands on Aleyamma’s head, he pronounced that she would give birth to a boy who should be devoted to the service of God.
CM Thomas thus entered the world on 8 June 1887 wrapped in prophecies and blessings.
At the age of six, his parents took him to the priest again seeking his blessings. Upon seeing him, the Metropolitan exclaimed, “Oh, evante thalayil thopi kayaran yogam undallo! (Oh, he is destined to wear the cap of a priest!).” With words of prophecy following him, Thomas proceeded to finish his studies in Mavelikara government school and CMS college in Kottayam and became a Deacon in 1912.
“It was for a church assignment that he happened to pass through Pathanapuram,” Paul Manalil, former assistant editor with the Malayalam Manorama and a chronicler of his life, tells Tehelka. “Pathanapuram was then densely forested, and was home to wild elephants.” When Thomas reached the area, he heard about a lower primary school that was about to be disposed of. He decided to buy it and start a proper school for the area. “He always had a strong belief in education as an agent of transformation,” says Manalil.
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In Pathanapuram, Thomas saw the opportunity to build schools and also establish a monastic order to promote an ascetic lifestyle, to which he was deeply attracted since his early days. Accordingly, in 1925, this devout follower of Jesus Christ established the ‘Mount Tabor’ order after the mountain in the Bible where Christ was transfigured.
The four main tenets of his order (also the second order in the history of the Orthodox Syrian church in Kerala) were to ‘transfer, transform, transfigure and translate’.
He then founded the Society of Sacred Transfiguration (sst) to carry out the functions of the order and educational institutions. “The ultimate ‘translation’ for him was death, before which each person should be ‘transferred’ spiritual attitudes and achieve ‘transformation’ through education to be ‘transfigured’ completely,” explains Manalil.
Soon a primary school began functioning right in the middle of the dense forest. Next, he built a higher secondary school for boys and girls. Training schools, an art college, technical colleges and numerous other educational institutions followed. The emphasis on English-based education in these educational institutes was a turning point, as it nurtured famous journalists, teachers and leaders.
“A firm believer in education, he would start off a project even without having the finances to do so,” recollects Ramban (professed monk) CO Joseph the Superior Head of the Pathanapuram church founded by Thomas. “He would ask for donations and manage to get the work done, all without a single penny in his pocket.” Soon, children from the neighbouring areas started flocking to these schools. Pathanapuram was seeing a shift in the wind.
The monastic order functioned alongside the schools, inducting new members who had dedicated themselves to an ascetic lifestyle that included hours of toiling in the fields, helping with administration of educational institutes and cooking, besides carrying out spiritual duties. Education was a top priority for the monks, who were directed by Thomas to be well qualified. “He would pull out all gaps to ensure our studies were not affected in any manner,” recollects Joseph.
The life of the monks in Mount Tabor was characterised by willful silence in order to stimulate thinking and reflection. “I remember seeing boards with the word ‘silence’ plastered across the monastery,” says Manalil. “Gongs of the bell were the only sounds we would hear from there.”