Sunday, May 22, 2005

Old Churches In Kottayam: we used to be Nestorian ?

When I visited Kottayam (in early January) I asked my aunt if there was anything really old to see there. She suggested we visit the Pally (church/mosque) area --- a part of town with two sixteenth-century churches and a thosand-year old mosque. The churches --- Cheriapally ('Small Church') and Valliapally ('Big Church'), and the mosque (which we didn't have time to visit), are all not far from the Meenachel river (mentioned, I believe, in Arundhati Roy's A God of Small Things). My grandfather grew up in the area --- in Thazhathangadi, by this river.

First a brief history. The christian community in Kerala has been around for a long time (ever since St.Thomas visited in AD.52 they say). Supposedly, the community was small and struggling until the fourth century when Thomas Knai, a christian from Persia, arrived with his large family and many others. Mr.Knai, by the way, was fleeing persecution from the Zorastrian Sassanid rulers of Persia. Because of active trade in the Arabian sea the church in Kerala kept in moderate contact with the church in Persia (sometimes known as the Nestorians) for the next several centuries. Finally the Portuguese imperialists arrived. On encountering the christians in Kerala they decided that they were heretics who needed to be brought under the authority of the pope in Rome. They were fairly successful in convincing people of this (and catholics are the largest group of christians in Kerala today), but many resisted. So in 16?? a group of christians took an oath (known as the oath of the Coonan Cross) to resist the Papal advances. They wrote to several orthodox churches (I presume the churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople etc) for help. By this time their old brothers the Persian church had become weak and 'retreated to the mountains', and the first to reply to their appeals for help were the Syrian Orthodox (also known as the East Syrian Church and disparagingly as Jacobites or Monophysites). [Disclaimer: all these labels come with a lot of theological baggage, and I am in no position to decide their accuracy. I use these terms out of convenience. A lot of my knowledge comes from Samuel Moffett's book A History of Christianity In Asia, which portrays both Nestorians and Jacobites quite sympathetically.] The remaining orthodox christians in Kerala thus came under the hierarchy of the Antiochian patriach. There were a few more theological and political bifurcations of the church (and more european imperial meddling) in the centuries to follow.

Inside Cheriapally
Before my visit to these churches my knowledge of this history was fairly sparse. I was not aware, for example, of our change in affliation from the so-called Nestorians to, their theological rivals, the so-called Monophysites. I went to Cheriyapally expecting not much more than to take a few photographs perhaps. Instead we got a personal guided tour from the very welcoming priest of the church (Fr.Mohan ?). He took us inside, drew aside the curtain in front of the Madhbaha, talked to us about what we saw and related that to the history and theology. What most surprised me about what he said was how strong the Portuguese influence was on the appearance of the church.

Cheriyapally was built around 1575 --- after the Portuguese landed and before the Coonan Cross Oath happened. The general architecture is european --- the facade reminds me of the churches of Goa. So are the murals on the sides of the altar. Some of the more recent murals on the far side of the altar have distinctly Catholic themes (such as the crowning of Mary by the Father,Son and Holy Spirit). Then there is the influence of local Hindu temple architecture --- for example in the wood carvings inside the church, and the oil lamps in the outer wall of the church.

Nor far from Cheriyapally is Valliapally. Today under the jurisdiction of the Knanites, it was built about 25 years before Cheriyapally. While the church is only about four and a half centuries old, it contains two granite crosses from much earlier --- believed to have been created in the 8th century. These crosses were brought to Valliapally from an older church in Cranganore/Kodungallur (a formerly active coastal trading town). The inscriptions are in Syriac... and Pahlavi (!) --- the pre-arabic alphabet/language of Iran/Persia (completely surprising to me because I was unaware of the Persian/Nestorian link). Also significant is that the cross is distinctly Nestorian. The pamphlet that I picked up in the church says that a similar Nestorian cross is found in a church at St.Thomas Mount, Mylapore, Madras (where Thomas is supposed to have been martyred). Incidentally the cover of Moffett's book shows a "rubbing from the cross on the "Christian Monument" at Hsian (Xian), Shanhsi Province, China, A.D. 781" i.e. another Nestorian Cross. The base of the Valliyapally cross and the Chinese cross share that same floral looking design. Valliyapally also has some strange looking imagery and temple-influenced carving. Unfortunately on our visit there was no knowledgable priest to explain the significance of all this.

The set of all my photos is here. On my list of places to visit on future trips : the 1000-yr old Thazhathangadi mosque (incidentally Islam also first arrived in India in Kerala via the arabian-sea trade), the St.Thomas Mount church (and Nestorian cross) in Madras, and Kodungallur (or wherever there are older relics of Kerala's christian past).