10 June 2007

State of Churches

If the Thomasine-legends are true, then there is at least 1940 years of Christianity in Kerala. So this bio-diversity hotspot of the world also hosts some of the world's oldest churches. The legend of one of these churches is that it is the first church in the world :) ... don't think one can prove that though.
Anyway coming back to the point of the post, today an historian or a tourist will be extremely displeased after their anxious waits to visit one of these churches of historical importance. Because sadly if ravages of time wasn't deteriorating enough these churches suffered also at the hands of local warlords and kings, plunderers, invaders, foreign hegemony, natural calamities, even elephants... and off late an artless renovation spree! So what you see now is possibly of an old foundation only.
Currently almost all the ancient churches here belong to one of the three factions below:
  1. Syro-Malabar Catholics (SMC)
  2. Malankara Orthodox Syrians or Indian Orthodox Church (IOC), and
  3. Jacobite Syrians
Of the 100 churches I have personally visited in the last 100 days, I should say that the Orthodox-es (2. & 3.) maintain some of the comparatively best 'kept' churches. By 'kept' I meant: that is ancient but relatively well preserved at least to some extent in its antiquity and/or renovated without corrupting its basic paradigm.
Generally the tendency of all churches in the Orthodox broad-spectrum (IOC as well as the Jacobites) is to engage a filigree architecture on their churches, which somehow reminds me of the design on typical Indian 'Glucose' biscuits. The filigrees acts as a distinguishing factor but not really appealing.
Improvisations to extend the St. George Orthodox Syrian church at Puthupally were very thoughtfully done. This church, in my opinion, is the best renovated/extended old church in a state of churches as old as Christianity. If this measure 'to change but not spoil' was consciously taken by the Devalokam, then for once I agree with my paternal-side faction. The IOC must have realized the need to preserve the art and antiquity of their ancient possessions of priceless values. An exception being the Kadamattom church, which is still in the immature fraternal dispute. And I pray they don't kill what's left of the Pazhaya Suriyani pally in Perissery, Chengannur and the currently renovating churches at Kaloopara and Cheralayam, Kunnumkulam.
In the Jacobite's list, I found the Nadamel church to retain some beauty though the bakery connection still lingers ; the church looks like a wedding cake! :-) Of course that don't mean every old church in the Orthodoxy's possession is still of artistic and/or antique value. The millennial-historied Kadeesa Cathedral of Kayamkulam and St. Mary's Cathedral of Mavelikara are example of this case.
The Jacobites still retain few of the enviable churches like at Mulanthuruthy, Manarcadu, Karingachira, Akaparambu and Piravom. But many of these treasured possessions have been colored to atrocity! The miraculous Manarcadu church, which enshrines a piece of the Holy Girdle of Mother Mary, has a flamboyantly colored yet insipid madbaha and sickly chosen coir-carpet colors. The Knanayites have done no better with their ancient churches at Ranni, Kalliserry and the Kottayam Valiyapally. This Valiapally is comparatively a little better than the others though. The Ranni and Kalliserry church facades are unimpressive.
With regard to the sickness of unnecessarily modernizing churches, I think the Jacobites caught the flu from the SMCs. The latter retain the majority of the ancient churches but most stripped of its antique beauty . The ancient churches under their wing were demolished for European settings (Portuguese-styled facades, marbled floors, cathedral ceilings). Only the Akkarapally of the SMCs in Kanjirapally retains any antiquity and is well kept.
It would seem there are no more artists left in this state. Many madbahas are now 'decorated' with plastic flowers and badly painted sequences of curtain folds, stars, angels and clouds!! Even a child can do better.
Simply appalled to hear about the intention to demolish the beautiful Ramapuram church. Isn't the crimes done to some of the ancient churches enough? Look what has become of the ancient Koratty muthy church? It looks more like a badly designed mosque. Wheres the art in the Vatican-styled domes and the zoo of concrete animals of the ancient Kuravilangad church ?
So this is the state of the churches in the state of churches. If we cannot take care of our heritage I say we should shed the Suriyani tags also.


pentatone said...

Excellent post---very true too! Perhaps the Orthodox Seminaries ought to include a course on Eastern aesthetics ... (I mention only the Orthodox since I've only seen Orthodox Churches ... the only Catholic Church I've seen, Edathua, seems decent compared to some of the Orthodox re-builds).


Sujith Philipose said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post.The gaudy and tasteless manner in which many churches have been painted and decorated makes one very sad