Ancient Christian Monuments in Kerala : Some Points of Concern by Prof. Jacob Kurian Onattu


Prof. Jacob Kurian Onattu

Prof. Jacob Kurian Onattu

MOTV – 20/2/17

Dear Orthodox Brethren,

I regularly read the weekly electronic bulletins of ‘UCAN India’, the Indian bureau of ‘the Union of Catholic Asian News’ based in Bangkok. In the Newsletter dated 16 February 2017, the major heading is “Christians unimpressed as Kerala plans to bank on their History”. There are some factual errors in the article. One is that out of the six million Christians in Kerala, five million are Catholics ! However, the argument in the article that the state’s divided Christian community has shown little interest in conserving heritage sites compels our immediate attention.

The article begins with the remark that the Kerala State Tourism Department has initiated a plan to attract visitors to ancient Christian sites, but the (Catholic) church officials are not happy about this because they have not been consulted in this regard. Quoting Kerala Tourism Director V. Jose, the article points out that Christianity in the Southern Coastal state is as old as Christianity itself. “The tradition that St. Thomas, the Apostle established India’s first Christian Community here is not much known among international travelers. This knowledge alone can play a major role in bringing religious scholars, historians and pilgrims to the state.”

Mr. Jose goes on to add that “to popularise the ancient history of Christians, the Tourism Department has planned five short movies depicting centuries of Christian life in Kerala using church architecture, pilgrim centres, festivals, Christian art and cuisines. We plan to broadcast the movies via the internet and social media by March and we hope that the campaign will bring travellers to the state by the 2018 season.”

The efforts of the Kerala Tourism Department in this line are commendable. But the sorry part is that everything is done under the impression that the three Catholic rites are the only Christian churches of Kerala ! For example, the Tourism Director Says “Global Christians are increasingly interested in Kerala after the canonization of Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara, Sister Euphrasia and Sister Alphonsa.” Does he know that the first canonized Indian Saint Parumala Mar Gregorios was officially proclaimed a saint as early as 1947 ? Does he know that millions of devotees transcending the boundaries of religion and caste throng at his tomb every year to beseech his intercessory prayers ? Has he heard of Vattasseril Mar Dionysius who too was canonized earlier than the local catholic saints mentioned above ?

This is the bane of all projects and studies involving Christians in India. Though we have orthodox historians, theologians and scholars galore, very little is done to make our presence felt. So, everywhere, only the Catholic point of view is projected. This is also true of the Muziris Heritage Project which is hailed as the largest heritage conservation project in India.

Though there are some controversies about Muziris being the ancient port town of Kerala near Kodungalloor where St. Thomas first set his foot to usher in Christianity, we cannot but appreciate the commendable endeavours towards conservation and restoration of the numerous monuments of a bygone era. But here too, among Christian institutions, only Catholic ones are promoted.

Apostle St. Thomas is believed to have visited Kunnamkulam (where there was a jewish settlement) and converted jews to Christianity. The present Arthatt St. Mary’s Cathedral (Mahayidavaka) is said to be the continuation of the Paloor Church which St. Thomas originally founded. The churchyard of the Cathedral is known to be the biggest private cemetery in Asia. Many churches in Kunnamkulam closely resemble Hindu temples in architectural style and bespeak the history of religious conversions after the advent of St. Thomas. But there is no effort to conserve and restore these heritage sites. I am not blaming the Kerala Council for Historical Research or the Kerala Tourism Department. Nor am I finding fault with the Catholics who get the monopoly advantage in all these realms. I am only pointing out our lack of enthusiasm and commitment in these matters.

In the UCAN newsletter under reference, Fr. Ignesh Payyappally who heads the archives division of the Syro – Malabar Church is quoted as deploring the condition of heritage sites. (May I ask who heads our archives division ?) Fr. Payyappally points out that old churches are being demolished without considering their historical value. The article also cites Robinet Jacob, Head of Tourism Studies at Mahatma Gandhi University. He says that the Kerala Christians have shown no interest in conserving heritage sites, despite having several churches that are centuries old. For example, he says, “Kottayam District alone has 15 churches more than 500 years old. Several such churches have been razed and new ones built in their places.” Mr. Robinet adds that the church should immediately set up a heritage department and take steps to protect historically important sites. “Whoever has ears, let them hear” is my humble observation in this regard.

Before I conclude, let me note with happiness that there are some orthodox churches in Kottayam district which have shown rare discretion in preserving their heritage. Kottayam Cheriyapally, the mother of all churches in the city, is one example. When the church building was too old, without mindlessly tearing it down, they brought specialized workmen from Chennai and painstakingly preserved and restored the church architecture. Likewise, the Puthuppally St. George’s Valiyapally too was maintained and conserved without demolishing the century old structures. Now they are engaged in carefully restoring the mural paintings inside the church which were done several decades ago. In between, several coats of paint were thoughtlessly applied over these priceless works of art. But now, experts from Guruvayoor and Kozhikkode are assiduously working on removing the paint and restoring the murals. When ‘Malayala Manorama’ carried a picture of the Vicar (Fr. Kurian Thomas Karippal) supervising the restoration activities, I heaved a sigh of relief. God, such things can happen in my church too !

Prof. Jacob Kurian Onattu
Retd. Principal, Baselius College, Kottayam
Mob: 9447306490