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The Palayoor Church: Two Millennia-long Continuous Christian Presence in Kerala Prof. George Menachery In these days when one hears so much about Hinduising christians in India, an investigation into the origins and development of the more than nineteen centuries old christian community and church of Palayoor in the Archdiocese of Trichur, located in the heartland of Kerala, has added significance. It is doubtful whether there are many places in the whole world which could claim a similar continuous christian presence for well-nigh two millennia. Any attempt to understand Palayur or its church, for that matter every attempt to understand the story of the St. Thomas Christians - their history, their liturgy, their spirituality, their art and architecture, their culture and society, their growth, development, progress, dispersion and spread - must begin with a study of the geography and history of Kerala and her ways. Discoveries and advances in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, numismatics, demography, place-names, family names, personal names, Indian Ocean and inland waterways studies,and studies on roads, cartography, folklore, art, architecture, literature, culture.....have all contributed to a better understanding and greater credibility of the St. Thomas event at Palayur. PALAYUR in the heartland of KERALA Recently the National Geographic selected 50 Places of a Lifetime which included only two places in India : Kerala and the Taj Mahal. This past Christmas the prime minister of India A. B. Vajpaye (born on Christmas day 1926) spent the whole of Christmas week resting and holidaying in Kerala, enjoying the sights and sounds enthusiastically recommended by the National Geographic. Kerala is a land of rivers and backwaters - forty-four rivers (41 west-flowing and 3 east-flowing} criss-crossing Kerala. The backwater cruises along the coastal lagoons mesmerize the travellers with the tranquilizing lullaby of nature.Six of the seven churches founded by the Apostle are very near the Arabian sea or the backwater system. Palayur was connected from the first century onwards even upto this day to other ancient trade centres of Kerala, especially Muziris, by rivers and backwaters. The river and backwater system in the erstwhile Cochin State opens out into the sea at Chettuwaye, Cranganur and Cochin with the three Thomas churches at Palayur, Kodungallur, and Parur connected together by this system. People from far off lands have found their way to Kerala and to Palayur since ancient times. The coast was familiar country to the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs and the Chinese long before Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498 A.D. References to Kerala and the Malabar Coast harbours and their exports aboud in Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.), the Periplus (90 A.D.), etc. Palayur’s prosperity in the First century A.D. and how it attracted foreigners is evident from the treasure-trove discovered near Palayur at Eyyal in 1945 containing large numbers of 1st Century B.C. / A.D. ROMAN COINS both gold and silver including those of Augustus, Tiberius, Nero & c. Another hoard found at Parur in 1984 also had similar content. The Palayur - Guruvayur - Kodungallur - Parur geological plate has been described as the largest and most intact geological plate by the concerned Government departments, making it necessary to look for the oldest continuous population centres of Kerala in its vicinity. Demographic reverse projection would indicate that the population of the whole of Kerala was at the most one or two lakhs in the first century, and as such if the Apostle’s efforts were all that successful as tradition would have it, the vast majority of Kerala’s and Palayur’s 1st century population must have accepted ‘the religion of grace’ preached by St. Thomas. PALAYUR: One of Three Extant Churches of Apostolic Origin Nothing much remains of the churches established by St. Thomas at Kodungallur, Chayal / Nilakkal, or Quilon. The Niranam cross was reerected by the Saint but the Kokkamangalam Cross thrown into the backwaters was re-erected by a local christian at Pallippuram. Hence only three of the original seven St.Thomas churches viz Parur in the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Ernakulam, Palayur in the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Trichur, and Niranam under the Orthodox Syrian Church (Devalokam Aramana) could claim a continuous existence from the time of their establishment by the Apostle in the middle of the first century after Christ. Origins of the Christian Community at Palayur Palayoor had its origin as a christian centre from the time of the preaching of St. Thomas the Apostle of Christ at Palayoor, early in the second half of the first century A.D. The Apostle’s visit and activities are thus described by the author of the Ramban Song: “........................................................., he travelled to the north, And thus in the space of a fortnight he reached the village of Palur, In those parts also he preached the religion for a year. During that time, He baptised one thousand and fifty persons.” Planting of the Cross After baptising the people of Palayoor the Apostle also made sure that they were properly trained in matters liturgical. To that end “..................................................................................Thereafter, In order that they all might perform all the rites of worship, There he set up a Cross of beautiful form.” The Thomas Event at Palayoor in Kerala Tradition Many other details of the work of St. Thomas at Palayoor are available from Kerala tradition and folklore and in works like ‘Ancient Wedding Songs’. The following is a typical version of what happened at Palayoor during the first encounter of the Apostle with the local people, as universally attested to in Kerala tradition: “When Thomas came to the great Brahmin centre of Palayur, a leading Brahmin Gramam among the 64, he came across some Brahmins doing the Pithru Yajna or Pooja to the manes or ghosts of deceased ancestors. They were throwing water into the air (Tharpanam) while reciting manthras. The Apostle learned from them the meaning of this ritual and remarked: ‘If your perfor-mance is acceptable to the gods they could keep the water suspended in the air without allowing it to fall doagain and again’. “The Brahmins said that this was unthinkable as it was opposed to the laws of nature. Then Thomas asserted that the One true God he worshipped could do it, and he proceeded to perform a miracle on condition that the Brahmins accept his faith if he is successful. The Apostle, invoking the Holy Trinity, made the sign of the Cross and threw a handful of water up into the sky. After reaching a particular height the water stood still in the air, the particles glittering like diamonds. Looking down the Brahmins could see the cavity made by the removal of the water still there in the pond. Most of the witnesses were baptised on the spot. However those Brahmins who did not accept the faith called the place ‘Shapa Kadu’ or Cursed Place and left the place immediately promising to take the next bath only at Vembanattu, unpolluted by the new faith. Even today, true to the oath taken by their ancestors, the Brahmins do not eat or drink in the vicinity of Palayur or Chowghat (Shapa Kadu).” Place Names The Ramban Song as we have it today was recorded in its present form from memory or from some earlier narrative only after the coming of the Portuguese. But there are many other local traditions relating to the arrival and preaching of St. Thomas at Palayur, including very strong and persistent beliefs about the origins of the names of the places around Palayur - most of them related to the mission of the apostle there. “An important place-name connected with the labours of the Saint is Chowghat. It figures in ‘Kerala Ulpathy’ or the ‘Origin of Kerala’ as Palayoor. The common tradition of Malabar associates the change of name with a miracle. It is commonly believed that, as a consequence of this miracle, several Nambudhiris embraced Christianity, and if we may rely on the tradition, which as I shall show, is supported by outstanding facts, their temple was consecrated for Christian worship. A number of Nambudhiris who refused to change their religion left the place. They cursed the place calling it Chapakatt (which in Tamil would mean) the cursed forest. The place has ever since retained the name, though it has been slightly modified into Chavakatt, and Anglicised into Chowghat” (The Syrian Church in Malabar, J. C. Panjikkaran, Trichinopoly, 1914, alias SARAS Edition, ICHC I, The Nazranies, pp.277, 278). Today Palayur is a ward of the Chowghat Municipality. It appears from an old song that there were some forty Nampoothiri Brahmin families or manas of Malayalee Brahmins at Palayur when the apostle had arrived on the spot. Of these the members of thirtyfour families or manas accepted the apostle’s faith. But the manas of Kandi, Kalam, Chengalam, Mundam etc. ran away to Venmenattu and settled down there. This place is still called Pudumanassery or the ‘place of the new manas’ or ‘new place of manas’.14 This tradition is prevalent not only among the christians but also among the Brahmins themselves. One family alone of the unconverted Brahmins remained in Palayur. This place, one kilometre south of Palayur today, has come to be called Orumanayoor or the ‘place of the single mana’ or Nampoothiri family. The name Palayur itself has undergone some transformation down the twenty centuries. In the early centuries it was known to the western world as Palura as in Pliny. The name continued as Palur till the time of the Synod of Diamper, as is evident from the first of the four Palayur copper plate documents of 781 M.E. i.e. 1606 A.D. (the date of which coincides with the year of publication of the Jornada at Coimbra) wherein the place is called Palur. In the second document of 852 M.E. (1677 A.D.) and in the third coppper plate document of 856 M.E. (A.D. 1681) it is called Palaiyur. Only by the time of the fourth document (918 M.E.) does it become the modern Palayur. Family Names “The Apostle must have given the same organisation to the churches that he established in India as the other apostles did. According to the Ramban Song, he ordained priests and consecrated bishops. Kepa and Paul are said to have been consecrated bishops. Two families, Sankarapuri and Pakalomattam, even today claim a continual line of priests starting from those ordained by the Apostle.” The two families Sankarapuri and Pakalomattam were among those who received their faith from Apostle Thomas at Palayur. As Placid Podipara also says, “There is a tradition that St. Thomas conferred priesthood and also high priesthood on the members of certain fmilies some of which, as we said above, exist even today glorying in a line of priests, going back, as it is said, to St. Thomas.” “Pakalomattam and some others (as we said) are some of these families. In Malabar families often take their original names from the compounds where they live in. The descendants of Pakalomattam and of some other families are found at Kuravilangad. The tradition is that they immigrated to Kuravilangad from far away Palayur in the early centuries. In Palayur could be seen even today compounds bearing these names. All these show how sedulously the Thomas Christians keep up their traditions.” 20 Some other families tracing their Christian origin to the Palayur event are : Kalli, Kaliyankavu, Kottakkali, Koyikkam, Nedumpalli, Panakkamattam, Madamboor, Muttodan....although the most famous examples are those of Sankarapuri and Pakalomattam which have contributed to the Kerala Church some of its best known leaders, priests, and administrators.” Personal Names L.K. Anantha Krishna Aiyar the reputed anthropologist testifies in his Anthropology of the Syrian Christians 22 that the Malayalam dialect or colloquial language of the Syrian Christians of the Thrissur district ( not necessarily of the Thrissur town, perhaps) is the language spoken by the Kerala Brahmins at home. The personal names prevalent among the christians of the area are also names or very similar to the names to be found among the Nampoothiries or Malayalee Brahmins of the area. Names like Kunjethy, Ittiannam, Cherchi, Unicharu are very common for christian women. Ittiachan, Thomakkutty and Thomman, Varunny, Kurian, Kochappan, Oppan are popular male names.[The Greek and Biblical elements in the chistian names of the locality harks back to a time much before the advent of any foreign domination in the area : Rodha, Alexander (Chandy), Pathros (Peter), Yohannan, Martha, Mariam, are examples.] The name of the vicar of the church in the Palayur copper plate No.1 of 1606 A.D. is Ittyachanar. During the time of the third and fourth copper plates the name of the vicar is given as Chakku. Customs among Christians and Brahmins Concerning certain customs of the local christians of the Palayur area Nagam Iyah has this: “There is no doubt as to the tradition that St. Thomas came to Malabar, and converted a few families of Nambudhiris. For, in consonance with this longstanding traditional belief in the minds of the people of the Apostle’s mission and labours among high-caste Hindus, we have it before us today the fact that certain Syrian Christian women, particularly of a Desom called Kunnamkulam, wear clothes as Nambudhiri women do, move about screening themselves with huge umbrellas from profane eyes as those women do and will not marry except perhaps in exceptional cases, and that only recently, but from among dignified families of similar aristocratic descent.” Here it may be remembered that the custom of white dress, the njori or fan-like appendix at the back symbolic of the greatest modesty, and the taboo regarding the use of nasal ornaments among the highest ranking Nambudhiri women or Antharjanams is perhaps copied from the Thomas Christian women because such customs are not to be found among Brahmins anywhere else in the country. Compulsory use of white dress and the avoidance of Nasabharanam are among the sixtyfour Anacharams of Adi Sankaracharya (b.ca.8th c. A.D.). Added to these when we study the unique seventytwo royal-priestly privileges enjoyed by all Thomas Christians for more than a millennium, and when we notice the increasing scholarly opinion that the Nabudhiris are perhaps a community with only perhaps a thousand or so years’ history in Kerala, the temptation is strong to conclude that the christians were perhaps the original Nambudhiris, some of whom became Vedic Hindus later on. For in Kerala proper, between the rivers Pampa and Ponnani there were no Vedic Hindu idols before the 10th century. It is noteworthy that Brahmins from noble families still do not eat or drink or even chew Pansupari while in the Chowghat - Palayur area, true to the oath of their forefathers who vowed “ Next bath only at Venmenadu”. The First Church at Palayur Information about one of the earliest churches of Kerala and India is forthcoming in a letter of Fr. Finecio s.j. When he decided, after obtaining due permission from the ecclesiastical authorities to construct a more convenient church for the parish of Palayur in early 17th century the local people were not willing to demolish the old church which they believed was constructed in apostolic times. That church was small, and fully made of teakwood. Then the Italian missionary decided to build a new church around the old one, without harming it. After he had completed the new church in ca.1607 he was able to get the people to agree to demolish the old structure. Finally the triumphant missionary says, “ The wooden structure still remained inside the new church. They believed that if that were to be demolished the person so doing would die on the spot. But I was able to remove that fear through a sermon. Straightaway they removed the old church. Only then did the splendour and size of the new church become visible. Hindus, Mohamedans, and Jews were continuously coming to see the church, more out of curiosity than from devotion.”30 Although Tippu Sultan’s army set fire to the church in the 18th century so that it had to be reconstructed it is believed that the nave of the present church belongs to Fr. Fenicio’s building. The statement of the missionary shows that Jews were present at Palayur at least till the beginning of the 17th century. The Jews in Palayur There is a strong belief that St. Thomas was first attracted to Kerala by the presence of Jews here, and that his first fields of work were in the Jewish colonies of 1st century Kerala.31 There is another point of view that Jews arrived in Kerala only after the fall of Jerusalem in 69 A.D.32 It is certain that even if there were no Jewish settlements in Palayur before the coming of the Apostle there has been a very strong presence of Jews there from soon after that. According Moses Pereya de Paiva there were in Palayur one synagogue and ten families of Jews in 1686. The Juden Kunnu (hill) of old records now termed the Jewish Bazar at Palayur is a living testimony to the presence and prominence of Jews there in the early centuries. The area at the foot of this spot is still called Angadythazham, which could be translated as the place at the foot of the (Jewish) bazar or hill. There is mention of a Jewish flute-girl in connection with the story of St.Thomas’ arrival in Kerala, and also mention of the Apostle converting forty Jews. But the Knanaya community of ‘Jewish Christians’ in Kerala trace their origin not to St. Thomas the Apostle, but to Thomas Kinayi only. The Bishop of Palayur The importance and stature of Palayur iamong the Thomas Christian churches is evident from the fact that Palayur was chosen as the episcopal seat of the first indigenous Metran or Bishop. Although there is an element of uncertainty or mystery surrounding some of the facts concerning the appointment of Archdeacon George of Christ as the bishop of Palayur, Pope Gregory XIII in his letter to the clergy and the christians of St. Thomas has this: “Obedite vero in Domino Abrahamo Archiepiscopo vestro, Georgio item Episcopo Palurensi...” This question is elaborately discussed, and is the theme of the book by Jacob Manjooran also. Discussions on this are also to be found in Mackenzie, Panjikkaren, Placid , Thekkedath and many others. The Archdeacon’s consecration could have prevented many untoward incidents in the history of the Kerala Church. Places and Objects of Interest There are in Palayur today a number of places and objects worthy of the historian’s, the tourist’s, and the pilgrim’s interest. In the preservation, protection, and conservation of these and in bringing to popular attention the significance of Palayur, many persons and organisations have rendered yeoman service. A few of these names may be recalled here, although space does not permit a detailed narration of the mulifarious services contributed by each: The vicars Frs. G.F.Choondal, J.Manjooran, .S.Arakkal,...the first vice-chairman of the Palayur Development Committee Retd. District and Sessioins Judge C.J.Devassy were some who during their lifetime worked hard for the progress of this pilgrim centre. The interest taken by the late Archbishop Kundukulam in the affairs of the pilgrim centre must be gratefully acknowledged. Because of its historical importance, the Church has been upgraded as Archdiocesan Shrine on 16 April 2000, by the Archbishop of Trichur Mar Jacob Thumkuzhy. To-day Palayur is a major Pilgrim Center, attracting hundreds of people everyday from all over the state of Kerala and also from other states and countries. Recently (27th Aug., 2000) relics of the Apostle Thomas have been brought from Ortona in Italy and deposited in the artistically made casket by the efforts of Archbishop Mar Thumkuzhy. Among the noteworthy Historical Monuments at Palayur are the Boat Jetty (Bottukulam) where St Thomas landed at Palayur, the Thaliyakulam or pond where St Thomas baptized the local people, a replica of Chinna Malai (of Mylapore - Madras) where St Thomas attainted martyrdom in AD 72, the historical remnants of an old Aryan temple, the Historical Museum, the 14 scenes from the life of St Thomas sculptured in granite, and the Jubilee Door in front of the entrance of the main hall of the Church, depicting various important Biblical events, carved in Burmese teak. The historical museum has many objects of archaeological, historical, and artistic value. Among the objects registered with / by the State Dept. of Archaeology are many ancient objects of historical value. The Christian Cultural Museum functioning in the Lourdes Cathedral premises from 1980, which had collected together a large number of objects of historic, artistic, archival, archaeological, and anthropological interest in granite, wood, metal, ivory&c. from old non-Catholic as well as Catholic churches spread all over the state, was trasferred to Palayur in the early nineties. The Archdiocesan commission for the Palayur Pilgrim Centre has recently made elaborate plans for its all round development, keeping intact its cultural and spititual heritage, and the Archdiocesan Committee for Palayur is now putting some of these plans into practice. Festivals and Celebrations The Palayur Pilgrim Centre today attracts, as has been mentioned, large numbers of non-christians also. This has always been the case. The following incident is taken from the Jesuit annual letter of 1607: Two kinglets, having in vain appealed to their idols, made vows in this church (at Palur) with the object of getting an heir. God heard them. One determined to feed 500 or 1,000 of the faithful. The second called about 4,000.36 The following are some of the festivals, celebrations, and rituals observed at Palayur: special services on every Tuesday, Muppittu Njayar celebration on Sundays after the tenth of every month with baptism of children from all over the archdiocese and state at the Thaliakkulam (tank), community vratharamba service on ash Monday, vidyaramba service every year, Dukhrana (July 3), First Sunday after Easter, etc. The most interesting event at Palayur nowadays is the Palayur Mahatheerthadanam or Great Pilgrimage under Archdiocesan auspices during the lenten season in which thousands of devotees participate irrespective of caste and creed. ----Prof. George Menachery