Nita Sathyendran – 18/5/13
The Indian Malankara Orthodox Church
In the midst of a quiet village, Nita Sathyendran finds Arapally, a heritage church believed to have been consecrated by St. Thomas the apostle
“You mean Thomayaar koil? Straight ahead!” replies an auto-rickshaw driver as we stop at Thiruvithamcode in Kanyakumari district to ask for directions to the heritage church that is popularly known as Arapally. The church is believed to have been consecrated by St. Thomas the Apostle, circa 63 AD.
And suddenly, there it is – Thiruvithamcode Arapally (officially St. Mary’s Syrian Church), cute and quaint, almost hidden amid the coconut groves and lotus ponds of this charming border village near Thuckalay, a short drive from the National Highway that connects Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari; a place that still bears traces of a time when the entire coast was ruled by the maharajas of erstwhile Travancore.
At first sight, tiny, neatly-maintained Arapally, built of quarry stone, with its granite pillars and lamps, tiled roof and latticed wooden foyer, really does look like one of the innumerable temples that dot the region. “The word ‘ara’ in Arapally doesn’t necessarily mean ‘half’ as is understood in the local language. Instead, it could denote a royal connection because the Dravidian word for king, ‘Arasan’. The king’s palace was termed ‘Aramana’, the majestic banyan tree is called ‘Arayal’… Thus the church could have been termed ‘Arapally’ because it was constructed and maintained with the support and patronage of local kings,” says Rev. Barsleebi Ramban. The Reverend has, for the past nine years, been the vicar of the church and is also the manager of the adjacent and newly-built St. Thomas Pilgrimage Centre, both of which function under the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (The Indian Malankara Orthodox Church) .
However, there are also those who believe that Arapally is, literally, only a half church because, according to tradition, St. Thomas only established a cross here for 64 families of converted Christian who moved to the area from Mylapore, fearing persecution from rulers. Arapally is thus said to be the ‘half’ church — one of the seven and a half churches in Kerala said to be established by the apostle.
“The original Arapally was believed to have been built under the patronage of the King of Venad, Nedum Cheralathan. There are some ancient references to the church such as in the Book of Duarte Barbosa, which talks about ‘Tharusayikkal’ believed to be about Thiruvithamcode. Also the canons passed at the famous Synod of Udayamperoor in 1599 show that a group of Christians living in Thiruvithamcode were in dire need of a priest and that there was urgent need to reconstruct the church,” says Rev. Ramban.
The present church is reputedly built on the site of the original church. Since then, it may have been rebuilt at least five times but the native style of the original church seems to have been faithfully maintained. “Having found the church in near ruins about 80 years ago, it was the late Rev. Fr. Koottumkal Geevarghese Ramban who restored the church to much of its present glory,” explains Rev. Ramban as he enthusiastically points out the treasures of Arapally that ‘hide’ in plain sight.
First up is the foyer. Carved onto the granite architrave (the door frame) are what appears to be two kneeling angels in front of an object which could be a chalice. Tucked in an alcove inside the antechamber is an old world baptismal font, made of granite, and said to be as old as the church itself. Right in front of the font, on what is the southern wall of the sanctum, is a cross. “It is believed to have been carved by St. Thomas himself,” says Rev. Ramban, as we take turns to touch it and offer a quiet prayer.
Just outside, adjacent to the western exit of the antechamber, he pointed out the remnants of an ancient stone trough where it is said that priests washed their feet before entering the church. Then, there is the well. “According to legend, the well was dug during the time of St. Thomas. It has never dried up,” he says. We eagerly peek over its edge as if expecting a miracle, rather disappointed when all we see is murky water! “Legend apart, I believe that there is something in the air here that brings me closer to God,” muses the Reverend. We cannot but agree.
If en route on NH 47 towards Kanyakumari, take a right at Azhakiyamandapam to Thiruvithamcode. If coming from Madurai/Kanyakumari, at Thuckalay Main bus stand take a right. Thiruvithamcode is around 2 km away from both places.
What to see
The heritage centre has a museum that has among its small collection of artefacts, an ancient mill stone, several old coins and a set of gifts to the church (said to be by the Portuguese), such as a small, 15th Century table made of wood, with carvings of St. Paul and St. Peter and that of a phoenix and a pelican.
Visit the nearby Padmanabhapuram Palace complex, once the seat of the kingdom of Travancore, and a masterpiece in traditional architecture. Chinnamuttam harbour too is close by.
Where to stay
Thiruvananthapuram, Nagercoil or Kanyakumari. Thiruvithamcode is around 54 km from Thiruvananthapuram, 20 km from Nagercoil and 34 km from Kanyakumari.