13 March 2018

On the Golden Oldies

Chevalier Prof. George Menachery is a respected figure among many different groups: historians, archaeologist among others. He is best known for his many tomes on the St. Thomas Christians.

A warm host and spends his time between conferences and talks. He is also with my opinion that more of the new-generation Malayali diaspora should be aware of their history and take pride in our heritage.

The title prefixing his name was conferred on him by Pope Benedict XVI as the ‘Membership of the Equistrian Order of St. Gregory the Great’

How did you start writing on this subject of Nasranis or Saint Thomas Christians? Were there any resources available at your time?

There were very few books on the subject. At Thrissur Public Library, there was an archaeology museum I used to visit there. BTW I am interested in Hinduism and related archaeology. I used to buy books from one of the shops there…then a bunch of them would cost just a few Annas (Old Indian money) [smiles]. Among these publications, I would rarely stumble on any St Thomas Christian writeups. Once I read an article on an Elephant Lamp in an old (Kanjoor) church. This interested me to dig further into old churches and the art within. That is when I realized what I had ignored before. I now say that the oldest rock sculptures should be from the ancient churches in Kerala!

Also, I was on one Catholic conference in New Delhi a long-long time ago. All throughout the conference there wasn’t a proper representation of the Syrian Catholicism prevalent in Kerala. When I got a chance to highlight this in one session I found that many of them (bishops) were clearly ignorant of any such history or this branch of Catholicism! I thought if this is the state of awareness in learned leaders of the Indian churches then what would be the level of awareness in the common people – this prompted me to then write first on the subject.

When did the Syro-Malabar Catholic Sabha (Church Group) formalize?

In 1887, Trichur (Thrissur) and Kottayam Vicariate Apostolates were formed. They were not dioceses, as only the Latins were given that privilege. There was a congregation called “Propaganda”, they had a technique that made us call their bishops 'Vicar Apostolic'.

You mentioned something about the oldest rock sculptures. Wasn’t many of our churches rebuilt many times in the past?

These old churches may have been relocated, rebuilt or renovated. But many of the structures in them they reused and maintained – take for example the baptismal fonts, altar pieces among others. These were reused.

Most ancient churches had three tier roofing – the highest for the Madbaha (altar area), second-highest for the Hykalla (Nave) and lowest for the Mukhamadapam (entry).

All old Syrian Christian churches had altar towards the east, Jesus is considered the rising sun - inspired by Egyptians’ Sun God Horus. You see all beliefs are built on something previous [smiles]

And every Egyptian temple had an obelisk in front of it, symbolizing the ray of the sun. Our open-air rock cross in front of the church are almost like this obelisk – inspired by it.

Are you saying there weren’t such crosses elsewhere in the Christian world?
No. Well there are now - the Portuguese has tried this out in Latin America - Brazil and around.

The biggest ones among ours are in Kuravilangadu (St. Mary’s Forane) and Kaduthuruty (St. Mary’s Valiya Palli) churches

An interesting aspect of our rock crosses: every cross here seems to sprout out from a lotus flower. With an historian background, from my observations, this lotus art seems to appear first in churches in Kerala! Also, you must have seen peacocks in our churches, as in Cheriapally (in Kottayam). Lotus, the nation flower and Peacock, the national bird ... seems to show up first here from churches and not from temples!

The Nasranis were mostly concentrated between the Bharatha and Pamba rivers (Quilon). Where is your native place?

My parents are from near Chengannur.
Chengannur has an ancient church and a beautiful open-air cross. It had with Adam and Eve carved into it.

Well there is a Hanuman on it too :)
Yes [smiles] and so are many more characters and animals.
There are six rock lamp-stands at that church.

Have you been to Kallooppara (St. Mary's Orthodox church near Thiruvalla)?
Of course, one of my favorites [bright smile] Beautiful and well preserved.

I don’t normally photograph the facades of these churches as all these facades (on our ancient churches) are Portuguese additions. This was done to erase the temple look.

Remove the facade and the Kallooppara church was almost a temple. Both these communities, Hindus & Christians, lived and prayed side by side. And their constructions inspired each other.

I’ve heard of this similarity between temples and churches of the past. One of my very-old relatives told me that the Niranam church was rebuilt a few times since he was born and before that it was like a kshetrom (Hindu temple). Even in history, I’ve read of somebody who went into a temple mistaking it for a Nasrani church.
Yes. It was Vasco da Gama in AD 1498, when he landed at Kappad. One his way to the Zamorin's palace he stopped to pray at a place where he saw people joining their hands.  He had thought many Indians were Christians – after all they were in search of the legendary Prester John.

He may have not noticed initially but after his thanksgiving-prayers to the Virgin he noticed some peculiarities of the Virgin Mary [chuckles] - Her teeth were protruding out some two inches and the tongue hung down abnormally and were stained red. Kali! 
When he realized, this was not the place he wanted to be – he said a prayer to withdraw it [chuckles]

Anyways the important thing, for us, with these historical records is to pick on the other things they mention – say like the observations of the Portuguese of the temple and/or church interiors. 
They mention of a fat pillar - Bali kallu (Sacrificial Altar); there is this in all our churches too, as the base of the rock cross! And the cross represents Sacrifice.
They mention of a tall pillar with Kite on top (Garuda) – flagstaff; again, there in our churches.
They mention of murals on the walls in temple - Images though came into our church only after Portuguese.

So, when did murals be introduced in Nasrani country?
Murals probably came into our church only in 14th century. One Bishop Marignolli from Florence introduced this art. Florence as you know is the land of the brilliants like Da Vinci, Michelangelo & Raphael. The bishop arrived through probably Kollam and says he stayed in one of the church ... most probably in Cheppad (St. George Orthodox Church). The murals in Kayamkulam, Cheriapally, Kanjoor, Akaparambu, Paliakara etc. maybe were later inspired.

BTW What were we called at those times? Nasranis?
Arabs used to call us Nasrenes. Other traders may have used the same when interacting with us. Elsewhere in the Christendom, we were mostly referred to as ‘Thomas Christians’.

What are the meaning of the stuccoes on the outside of some of our churches?
As per me, art depicts the life of the times.

At one of churches in Akaparambu (Mor Sabor and Afroth Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Cathedral) there is one plaster image of a nude woman hung upside down. I could see it as depiction of punishments like one of the art inspired by Dante's works.

Just a little away from Akaparambu there is another ancient church at Angamali (St. Mary's Soonoro Cathedral), where also hell is depicted. Angamali (church) has one of the such largest mural art.

How do react to some of the far Right-wing allegations on Christianity in India? They are out to prove that there were never any Christians in India before the Portuguese.
Absolute idiots I say!

There are also some historians to support them too, who are in denial because they cannot accept the evidences or chose not to accept. Why, even Marco Polo has written about the Thomas Christians back in AD 1293!
Want to go back further? 4th century - Mar Aprem (St. Ephrem), one of the early bishops of Christianity mentions of India, the translation bones of St. Thomas from India to Edessa. See how many times he mentions India in a praise to St. Thomas:

‘Blessed art thou, O Light, like the lamp, the sun amidst darkness
hath placed; the earth darkened with sacrifices’ fumes to illuminate.
‘A land of people dark fell to thy lot that these in white robes
thou shouldest clothe and cleanse by baptism: a tainted land Thomas has purified.

the solar ray from the great orb; thy
grateful dawn India’s painful darkness doth dispel.
‘Thou the great lamp, one among the Twelve, with oil from the
Cross replenished, India’s dark night floodest with light.

This Right-wing trolling army are abusive and their only job is to negate every other opinion. No point in discussion with them.

But how do we know that the India St. Ephrem speak of is the same India now? It could be mistaken for Persia or some place in Central Asia or islands near Africa?
There is nothing so unclear of where India was, at least for the last 1500 years. In the earlier extract from St Ephrem, he says “the earth darkened with sacrifices’ fumes” – Should have been about homams (Yagna or Pooja); “A land of people dark” – Most people are clear of the other dark people, the Africans, and this reference is not about Africans.

See I am not trying to prove of St. Thomas’ arrival but definitely there are enough and more remarks of early Christians in the India. The trade between Malabar coast and Middle East were also supportive to this, giving the chances of ancient Christianity arriving here quite early.

Pliny the Elder says it’s easy to reach Muziris (ancient seaport on Malabar coast): get on a boat, set the sail and if monsoons are on the way the boat will be there in 40 days. To return use the reverse monsoon season.

Ok. Now another topic. Does the Syro-Malabar Catholics use the Catholicized Chaldean rite?
The name sounds funny, right? Some of our younger people jokes – is having a Zero (pun for Syro) for our Sabha so bad [chuckles]

All the early Thomas Christians followed Chaldean rite. The 1599 Synod of Diamper they tried to Latinize us - they removed the mentioning of our Patriarchs in the Diptychs reading during the mass, this was replaced with the Pope names; some other edits on the liturgy was done. This infuriated the Nasranis. Over time the pent-up anger exploded in 1653 in the Coonen Cross episode. But even after 50 years of this event, the Latinized versions were loosely followed. Its only when one bishop Gregorios arrived that the West Syriac St. James liturgy was introduced into the Nasrani crowd. We (the Syro-Malabar Catholics) continued with the earlier sort-of Latinized Chaldean liturgy.

Dutch was anti-Catholic and so this enabled the visitation of the orthodox bishop Gregorios. However, this bishop still didn’t allow any native to be ordained.

Have you heard of the Palayur vs Arthattu camps’ arguments on which is the oldest church in Kerala? Some say Tipu Sultan’s army attacked the Arthattu curch because it was the ancient one.
Palayur is where we all hear that of the first church that St. Thomas established. Whether it is exactly in Palayur or slightly away, there is no evidence of any of this. But at least there is a strong tradition that it is in this region. The two places are quite close also.

Tipu had also burnt the Ollur church roof and our people ran helter-skelter. Many didn’t even come back even when Tipu retreated [smiles]. I don’t think he selected any ancient church to be destroyed. He was on an invasion and any resistance would have been met with appropriately, that’s all.

How old is the Ollur church?
Only some 300 years – it’s my parish. The colorful Raphael feast is only 200 years old. This church is however a pretty decorative and ornate.

I have a hypothesis – maybe there was Christianity throughout the Western Indian coast. Over time many parts of this reduced because of migration, forced inclusion into local-religions or transformations like in the Goan Inquisition. Now the remnant of the St Thomas Christians of yore survives only on the Malabar coast. It is so possible that this St. Thomas landing and seven church story may have been adapted later to suit the surviving crowd. Expand the scope of the land and the scenes must have acted out elsewhere. What do you think?
A plausibility and St. Thomas’ acts [smiles] elsewhere are also clearly mentioned in the Acts of Thomas. This says that Thomas came to India twice - first somewhere in North-West India and second to the South. This Acts of Thomas was considered fictitious till some historians found evidences of the King Gudnaphar, who is mentioned in this Acts, at Taxila in Pakistan. Therefore one part of the Acts seems to match with the dates and location.

Now consider this: The Ollur (St. Antony's Syro-Malabar Catholic) church has close to 5000 families, a very rich church. These parishioners say they are descendants of those who used are from the Pazhuvil (St. Antony's Syro-Malabar Catholic) church. Pazhuvil church is old, from AD 960. However, even the Pazhuvil parishioners don’t claim to be the oldest just to gain fame; they could - they have seashore nearby too to justify the Thomas story. However, they chose to claim to be descendants of those from the Enammavu (St. Mary’s) church, which is even older AD 510 or so. And the Enammavu parishioners say they were originally from the Palayur church where Thoma-Sleeha (Apostle Thomas) arrived.

And all of the Malayali St. Thomas Christian diaspora trace back, undisputedly, to one of the seven churches that St. Thomas built. Most of these seven churches are near the Sangam-age ports. All these are significant facts, too valuable to disregard.

Are the Knanayas the pure-descendants of the arrival. Or this is a recent re-group?
Well they seem to maintain the endogamy. They have large congregations at Chingavanom, Kottayam, Kallisery etc. By and large I think they are following some tradition.

And they still have very good interest in commerce now as when the same grants were conferred through their Copper-plates (Thomas of Cana plates of privileges)

But the Knanaya plates (of grants) are said to be missing, right?
Yes, but a translation of this plates (in Portuguese) are preserved in the British Museum. It should be there in one of my papers online, in my second book – Thomapedia.

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