Kerala Church Art and Architecture

Paper presented by Prof. George Menachery at the National Seminar - Calicut University 2002 on WESTERN IMPACT AND NEW OCIO-CULTURAL FORMATIONS IN KERALA FROM THE XVI CENTURY: European Influence on Church Art and Architecture of Kerala

Kerala Murals older than Rajput and Mughal paintings   

1.1.1 What art and architecture is purely indigenous?

There is no art or architecture - no socio-cultural formations of any significance, anywhere in the world - relating to a nation, a region, a religious or racial or linguistic group - that is fully local or indigenous. The art and architecture of Kerala - secular or religious - from the sixteenth century onwards is no exception. Thus Church Art and Architecture of Kerala from the commencement of the Christian presence on these coasts at the dawn of the Christian era have been to a greater or lesser degree influenced by those of other nations and religions as they have been influenced by Keralas wealth of artistic and architectural traditions. All the nations and cultures that came into contact with Kerala - the Egyptians, the Phoenecians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs (of pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic persuasions), and the Europeans of a later date like the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the English and even other Europeans have all left their mark on the society and culture of Kerala, as has also been the case with mainland Indian groups.

1.1.2 The location of the state [Kerala] on the westwern seaboard, at the centre of the international highway of sea-borne trade connecting the East and the West, [and the North with the South] made it a meeting point of many worlds, a melting pot of races and creeds, from early times.1 The Hindu monarchs and chieftians of the post-Sangam period ruled over a fertile agricultural tract the peace and safety of which were guarenteed by the Western Ghats on the one side and the Arabian sea on the other. The land itself was [for long] a secret shared between the sea and the mountain, an illegitimate child of the two natural forces, protected by and provided for by them in a special way.2 But already we find in the first centuries B.C.E. / C.E. that while the monsoon route connected Muziris (cranganore) directly across the Arabian Sea with cities in the west (e.g. Alexandria, Aden) the West Coastal route gave its ships ready access to the Indus3 and to countries to the North and Northwest in Asia and Europe.4 1.1.3 It would appear that the impact of her trans-Arabian-sea visitors were much more pronounced in the case of Kerala than that of her mainland neighbours, even during and especially after the Sangam age. This contact with the countries west has paved the way for considerable influence of the societies and cultures of those lands and their peoples on every phase and aspect of the life of the inhabitants of Kerala. Thus from the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498 Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and England have had a great deal of influence on the people of Kerala not only in the matter of material cicumstances of life but also in the field of ideas and ideologies. One of the strongest areas where this influence is manifested is in the field of Kerala art and architecture in general and Christian art and architecture of Kerala in particular.

2.1.1 Christian art and architecture in Kerala in the pre-European periods had developed obtaining nourishment from two sources: one, from the countries in the near-east including perhaps Greece, Rome, Egypt and other Middle East countries from which ideas and practices were imported by missionaries and traders, and two, the indigenous forms and techniques of art and architecture that existed in the land.  

2.1.2 By a happy mingling of these two streams already by the arrival of the west in Kerala there was existing here a strong tradition of Christian art and architecture which was notable for its aesthetic as well as pragmatic excellence. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the English and also the missionaries from Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium &c. brought with them their own art traditions which resulted in adding certain features to the already existing structures and traditions without trying to or succeeding in totally replacing the cultural heritage of the Christians. Hence today one can see a harmonious blending of the East and the West in the Christian art and architecture of Kerala although examples are not altogether lacking of attempts made to implant certain incongruous elements into Keralas cultural formations.

2.1.3 Hence to understand and estimate the quality and quantity of this European influence on Kerala Christian art and architecture it may be best first to analyse the nature of such art and architecture at the coming of the Portuguese in 1498 and thereafter to study the items introduced by various western administrators and missionaries, along with their varieties and spread.

3.1.1 Two pictures are available about the churches and churchbuilding activities of the Christians of Kerala at the beginning and end of the sixteenth century. At one end we have the letters written by the four bishops in 1504.5 At the other end of the century we have the documents of the Synod of Diamper in Malayalam as found in the Kerala churches, in Portuguese in the work of Gouvea6, and in English in the work of Geddes7.

3.2.1 The tale of how Vasco da Gama went into a Hindu temple in Kerala and mistook it for a church and venerated tha idol of Bhagavathi (?) mistaking it for an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary would have clearly illustrated the similarity of the Houses of God in Hinduism and Christianity in Kerala had we any assurance that Gama already knew about the shape of Devalayas in the land from his many spies and scouts.

3.2.2 The description of the reception given to the bishops by the faithful sheds considerable light on the state of the churches, the Christians and their cultural and artistic traditions: ...they were received by the faithful with great joy and they went to meet them with joy, carrying before them the book of the Gospel, the cross, censers, and torches...8. And they, the bishops consecrated altars...9.

3.2.3 In the Synod of Diamper, 1599, there were represented more than a hundred churches of the St. Thomas Christians. This indicates the existence of a very large number of churches already at the coming of the western powers to India. The description of the visits of Archbishop Dom Menezes to various churches before and after the Synod throw some light on the structures and arrangements of the churches before western elements and types were introduced into Malabar.10

4.1.1 There were three striking objects of significance in front of the typical Malabar churches, either inside the courtyard or just outside it: the open-air granite(rock) cross which the present writer has christened Nazraney Sthamba or Flag-staff made of Keralas famed teak wood( Parur), and often enclosed in copper hoses or paras(as at Changanassery, Pulinkunnu, or Chambakkulam), or made out of some other wood or other material.Stambas or pillars of some type or other are to be found among the Buddists, Jains, Hindus, etc. in India.Such pillars and structures were part of the Christian heritage of Kerala much before the ascendancy of the Vedic Hinduism in these parts , although J.Ferguson did not know or care about these11. ...4 -4-

4.1.2 The ubiquitous cross of Malabar churches is best represented by the rock crosses,mostly outside the churches.The open-air rock-cross of Malabar is an obelisk ,a tall stone column,with four,sometimes decorated,slightly sloping sides.Rome has many obelisks (from Egypt and East, but no cross-bearing structures decorating the piazzas and squares); London has one on the banks of the Thames;Paris has one at

the place d la concorde; and even New York has one in the central park. Many memorials like the Washington Memorial are obelisk-shaped. The Asoka Pillar and other such Indian pillars were influenced by the Graeco-Parthians,under Egyptian-Persian influence. The Nazraney sthamba is a direct descendant of the obelisk., and much closer to it than the other Indian pillars- in shape,method of constuction and transportaion , method of erection , function, and solar symbolism. The Roman obelisk,bearing crosses today, have been converted to christianity , while Keralas cross-shaped obelisks were born Christian.The obelus and the double -dagger reference marks in printing may be profitably recalled here. Such obelisk crosses continued to be erected mostly in front of churches even after western ascendancy without much change although a few changes in the motifs on the pedestals etc. could be noticed.

4.1.3 The three-tier gabled indigenous architecture of Kerala churches, which lacked facades until the coming of the Portuguese, immensely gains in richness symmetry, and beauty because of the open-air rockcrosses,some of them more than 30 feet in height including the intricately carved pedestals, and monolithic shafts. No other community in Kerala has such a huge monumental stone structure. The indoor counterparts of these crosses have the earliest carvings in Kerala of the national flower lotus and the national bird peacock. Perhaps even the national animal tiger is first depicted in Kerala art in church sculpture. There was no rock carving in South India prior to the period of these indoor crosses. The motifs, message ,and images on these crosses and their pedestals display a remarkable degree of Indianness and Malayalee Thanima or identity. Vedic Hindu Gods and Goddessess like Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Sapthamathas , Jeshta etc. appear in the art of the central Guruvayoor/Palayoor-Quilon part of Chera country only after the 11th-13th centuries, and even in the Salem-Erode section, and the Trivandrum-Cape Comorin section Vedic Hindu deities appear in art only as late as the 9th century A.D. ...5

 4 -5- .1.4 The base with a socket, the monolithic square and slightly tapering shaft with cylindrical terminals, the horrizontal piece forming the arms with a double(hole) socket in the middle, and the capital with a cylindrical bottom end are the four members of the open air cross.They are so well chiselled and proportionate that when put together the socket and cylinder arrangement enables the cross to stand by itself. However for the bigger crosses,pedestals in the form of sacrificial alters of Ballikallus are found, often carrying exquisite reliefs of the flora and fauna of the land in addition to scenes from daily life and biblical scenes.The cross representing the supreme Bali (sacrifice) or Mahabali appearing on the Balikkallu most appropriately represents the Calvary/Bethania events and sheds plenty of light on the ideological ,historial,cultural and technological bent of mind of the forefathers .Compare with the base of the Obelisk of Theodosius,Constantinople,.A.D.390.

 4.1.5 The obelisk is a ray of the sun - here a ray of Christ(of Hours -Xt. the sun-God). This ray helps the lotus near - universally depicted on such crosses to blossom forth representing in a typical Indian poetic conceit the grace received by the sin - bound human soul(panka jam) from Christ. Lotus representing the sun is found in other early Indian art also.The half dozen interior Pehlavi inscribed crosses, some of them surely of pre 7th century origin,which were mostly tombstones before they were put up on the altars ,have generally the dove (Holy Spirit) depicted on top of the clover or flowertipped equal-armed Greek cross,in addition to the lotus at the bottom.In this three piece (Thri-kanda) cross one might, perhaps, with considerable effort read the lotus represented Brahma (Father), the flowery cross (Son), and the dove (Holy Ghost). But the lotus has more universal and more diverse implications in the various eastern creeds. 4.1.6 The arrangement to hold wicks found on the crosses may be related to the preservation of fire ,and the effort to make it available to the common people in the dim past, when Homakundams were rare in Kerala or beyond the reach of the common folk.It is perhaps in connection with the need to preserve fire that the oil-Nerchas and oilAraas of the churches, and the compound -wall rocklamps are to be evaluated.The oil related objects in the churches also indicate the connection of this christianity with the trade of the land,especially oil-trade.The bell like arrangement on some crosses also are noteworthy.Veneration of the cross,angels,Adam and Eve... and of course the Indian Cross itself are some of the religious carvings on these structures.

4.2.1 Dwaja-Sthampa ...6 -6- The square of polygonal shape of the individual pieces in the granite or rock lampstands at Kallooppara,Kundra, and Chengannur indicate the antiquity of such lampstands in the churches.Unlike in the churches ,in the temples ,the tradition of these lamps continued and thus developed in to the present-day round shape of the pieces. In art history generaly the simpler forms make their appearance first , and refinements and complications indicate a later date. Even when the tradition of lampstands declined in the churches, many open-air

crosses had wickholders incorporated in to them, with the advantage that wind and rain do not put off the flames. Church walls still display rows of rock of lamps. Inside the churches the tradition of bronze lamps continued display rows of rock lamps. Inside the churches the tradition of bronze lamps continued vigorously, representing a variety of shapes and types, and some lamps having even hundreds of wickholders, e.g. the Aayiram Aalila lamps at Arthat or Angamaly, Kottekad.

4.2.2 In front of the church the third interesting object is the flagstaff, sometimes covered with copper paras. Every festival is announced with the Kodiyettu or flag-hoisting, a tradition going back to early Buddhist times at least. All these three objects in the courtyard of the church have a variety of liturgical functions associated with them.

4.3.1 Baptismal Fonts Let us now climb and go across the portico and enter the Haikala or nave beyond the Aanavathil to look at the rock baptismal font in the baptistry.

4.3.2 There are interesting rock baptismal fonts at Edappally, Kanjoor, Mylakkombu, Muthalakkodam, Changanassery, Kothamangalam, Kadamattom etc. The similarity of these baptismal fonts with illustrations of the fonts used for the baptism of Constantine (4thC.) and Clovis (RheimsC.496) is remarkable.

4.3.3 All the old baptismal fonts are of granite or very hard laterite. They are all huge in size indicating that baptism by immersion must have been the order of the day. Most of the old baptismal fonts depicted in the STCEI & the ICHC were probably of a date prior to the decree of the Synod of Diamper which made permanent fonts more or less compulsory. Although most of the old baptismal fonts/ baptistries are found near the west end or middle of the nave on the northern side - Kaduthuruthy(Big), old Edappally, old Kanjoor, Changanassery (Southern side), in many churches, mostly Jacobite/Orthodox ...7 -7- they are found close to the sanctuary e.g. Angamaly (Middle-church). They are exquisitely carved with reliefs of the baptism of Christ, Mary feeding the Child, angels, Indian crosses, etc. There are also wonderful motifs of leaves, the basket pattern, coir pattern, etc. engraved on these stones. By the way the very Malayalam word Mammodisakkallu indicates a font made of stone. Another term is mammodisath-thotti. The Holy Water Font is called Annavella Th.-thotti.

4.3.4 The Architraves and doorposts in many churches are good examples of south Indian rock-carving. (e.g.old Kayamkulam, Chengannur, Kanjoor)But the rock-baptismal fonts are the real pride of many an old church.

4.1.1 Another aspect of church architecture that has scarcely been affected by the later types from abroad is the old three tier gabled wooden roofing with the highest roof for the Madhbaha or Sanctum Sanctorum and the lowest for the Mukhamandapam or portico with the nave or Hykala having a roof of middle height.

Although the rock crosses, the flagstaffs, the rock lampstands, the baptismal fonts, and the three tiered roofing pattern have not been much affected by the western visitors and conquerors many of the objects inside the churches and the very appearance of the inside have undergone many changes after the arrival of the Portuguese and other westerners. Let us look at some of these changes.

5.1.1 There is an interesting description of Kerala churches in the account of Joseph the Indian, c.1500. The Christians have their churches, which are not different from ours, but inside only a cross will be seen. They have no statues of the saints. The churches are vaulted like ours. On the foundation is seen a big cross just as in our place. [May be the open air cross?] They have not any bells.

5.1.2 There is much truth in the statement of Gerge Varghese: But once these churches came under the jurisdiction of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, the ornate monumentality of the European churches was introduced into the small temple-like Syrian Christian churches, which even did not have windows in the early past. The baroque and ornate altars with statues and foliages replaced the Chaldeo-Syrian altars, which were infact only stone-tables with nothing more than candles, Chalice and the Holy Book on them, the bare nesses