Kerala has many churches of antiquity.Many lists exist about the ancient Churches and its year of foundation. There are mainly two types of rock crosses in Kerala Churches broadly classified as St. Thomas cross and Nazraney sthambams. There are also Persian crosses in other forms such as seen in Niranam and North Paravur Churches.
This article focus on 1.) Ancient Churches of Saint Thomas Christians in Kerala with year of foundation 2) Ancient Stone Crosses of Kerala 2.1) St. Thomas Cross- Locations of the Crosses in India- About the Saint Thomas Cross 2.2) Nazraney Sthambams -Locations of the Open Air Crosses- About the Open Air Crosses 2.3) Other Persian Crosse- Kottakkavu ( Parur) Cross- Niranam Cross-Nilakkal Cross.
1. Ancient Churches of Saint Thomas Christians in Kerala with year of foundation
According to tradition Saint Thomas, the apostle established Seven Churches or communities in Kerala. These are Palayoor, Cranganore, Paravur, Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Chayal and Kollam.
It has been suggested that the inland movement of St. Thomas Christians from the initial locations started from 3rd century onwards as part of their agrarian activities to bring more forest under cultivation. This resulted in erection of several churches at inland parts. In the succeeding centuries migrating Persian Christians and some local Christians concentrated more of their activities on the coast. The native St. Thomas Christians penetrated more and more to the inland parts. The immigrants from West Asia, who settled down in India at different periods of the history got intermingled and emerged in to the mainstream Saint Thomas Christians Community.
The important churches which were erected during this period based on tradition are as follows,1
Church locations & Events
YEAR of Foundation
Saint Thomas the Apostle at King Gondaphares in North India
c. 40 AD
Saint Thomas the Apostle lands at Cranganore
c. 52 AD
Saint Thomas the Apostle builds churches or communities ( Palayoor, Kodungaloor, Parur, Kokamangalam, Niranam, Nilackal, Kollam)
c. 52-72 AD
Martyrdom ofÂ Saint Thomas the Apostle at Mylapore, India
July 3rd. 72 Â AD
Kuravilangadu Â Church founded
c. 105 AD
Pallipuram Church founded
c. 290 AD
Ambazhakad Church founded
c. 300 AD
Aruvithara Church founded
c. 301 AD
North PudukadÂ Church founded
c. 400 AD
Puthenchira Church founded
c. 400 AD
Chambakulam Church founded
c. 427 AD
Akaparambu Church founded
Angamali Church founded
Mattam Church founded
c. 480 AD
Muttuchira Church founded
c. 510 AD
Kaduthuruthy Church founded
c. 510 AD
Enammavu Church founded
c. 510 AD
Udayamperoor Church founded
c. 510 AD
Edapally Church founded
c. 593 AD
Chalakudy Church founded
c. 600 AD
Mylakombu Church founded
c. 600 AD
Kolenchery Church founded
c. 650 AD
Moozhikulam Church founded
c. 650 AD
Kayamkulam Church founded
c. 824 AD
Kothanalloor Church founded
c.826 Â AD
Athirampuzha Church founded
Kottayam Church founded
Nagapuzha Church founded
Manjapra Church founded
Mavelikara Church founded
Kadamattom Church founded
Pazhuvil Church founded
Arakuzha Church founded
Nediasala Church founded
Kottekad Church founded
Kunnamkulam Church founded
Kadaplamattom Church founded
Kanjur Church founded
Kaduthuruthy Cheriapally founded
c. 1001 AD
Pala Church founded
Muttam Church founded
Cherpunkal Church founded
Vadakara Church founded
Bharananganam Church founded
Changanacherry Church founded
Thripunithara Church founded
Cheppadu Church founded
c. 1175 AD
Chengannoor Church founded
c. 1175 AD
Kudamaloor Church founded
c. 1175 AD
Ernakulam Church founded
c. 1175 AD
Mulanthuruthy Church founded
Kothamangalam Valiapally founded
Karthikapally Church founded
c. 1240 AD
Kuruppumpady Church founded
c. 1240 AD
Alengad Church founded
Muthalakodam Church founded
Njarackal Church founded
Koratty Church founded
Poonjar Church founded
c. 1381 AD
Alleppey Church founded
Kanjirappilly Church founded
Ramapuram Church founded
Kothamangalam Cheriapally founded
Kudavechur Church founded
Elanji Church founded
Poonjar Church founded
In 1578, there were about Sixty Churches for Saint Thomas Christians in Malabar. The number of Churches increased during the course of time, and by the year 1644 there were about 94 of them.2
The Church buildings conformed to the Malabar style of architecture. The early builidings were built entirely of wood.Teak wood buildings are said to last for four hundard years as remarked by Fr. Paulinus in eighteenth century. Most of the old churches are beautifully decorated with plaster decorations, most commonly appearing the Virgin and Child. There are also crosses on various floriated designs and angles, images of male and female beings, half man, half fish, holding a ship above their heads. There are also images which has no religious significance such as man shooting a tiger etc.
The ancient Churches externally looked like non- Christian pagodas, the only distinction being the crosses that were put on the roofs and in front in the open air. The Churches also had flag staff. A flag hoisted on such a staff indicates that a feast is being celebrated in the church.3.
2. Ancient Stone Crosses of Kerala
There are two types of rock crosses in Kerala Churches broadly classified as St. Thomas cross and Nazraney sthambams. There are also Persian crosses in other forms such as seen in Niranam and North Paravur Churches.
There is a local tradition which states that Mar Sabrisho and Mar Peroz made a good number of conversions, built new churches and erected open air- crosses.4
2.1 St. Thomas Cross
The smallinterior type rock cross is called St Thomas cross or Persain Cross. These crosses are found at the following locations in India,St. Thomas Mount( Madras),Kothanalloor,Kottayam[ 2 nos ],Kadamattam,Muttuchira,AlangadandGoa.
Similar crosses are also discovered fromAnuradhapura[ 2 nos ], Sri Lanka andTaxila, Pakistan.5
Locations of Saint Thomas Crosses in India
The Saint Thomas Mount Church is atOur Lady of Expectations Church, under the Latin Catholic diocese of Chingelpet ( Madras-Mylapore). The Kadamattam cross is atSt. George Syrian Churchof the Malankara Orthodox Church. The Muttuchira cross is atHoly Ghost Church, under the diocese of Palai of the Syro Malabar Church. The Kottayam crosses are atSt. Mary’s Churchunder the Southist diocese of Kottayam of the Syriac Orthodox Church.The Kothanalloor cross is atSt.Gervasis and Prothasischurch under the diocese of Palai of the Syro Malabar Church. The Alangad cross is atSt. Maryâ€™s churchunder the diocese of Ernakulam- Angamaly of the Syro Malabar Church. The Goan Cross is atPilar Seminary Museum, Goa.
The Churches except the Kottayam belongs to the Northist under the Syro Malabar Church and Malankara Orthodox Church. The oldest of these churches are the Mylapore and Muttuchira Churches.The Mylapore Cross is considered as the oldest in India. Based on the type of the script used most of these crosses are attributed belonging to between sixth and eight centuries. Only the second cross of Kottayam, which has a Syriac inscription is dated as belonging to tenth century.
About the Saint Thomas Cross
This Cross been venerated by all St Thomas Christians from ancient times. They have inscriptions in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) and Syriac which indicate that they date to before the eight century.
These carved crosses are located inside the churches and are very decorative. These are not typical crucifix and are a plain cross which doesnâ€™t show Christ on the cross. In Eastern Christianity and Syrian Christianity, the plain cross is the symbol of the triumph of Christâ€™s life over death. It is of symbolism in Eastern Christianity.
These crosses are also sometimes called Leaved Crosses or Persian crosses as they symbolize at the bottom a set of leaves. The leaves usually flow upwards either side of the base of the cross symbolizing the cross as the tree of life. But some of these crosses from Kerala the leaves are downward pointing. This is indigenous and this symbolism and tradition is not find in Persian or Middle East or even in Byzantine art.
2.2 Nazraney Sthambams
The giant open air rock cross are called Nazraney Sthambams. The plinth of these crosses represents lotus petals and lotus flowers and has a square base. It also has a variety of iconographic motifs, including elephants, peacocks and various other animals, depictions of the HolyFamily and of the Crucifixion, to name a few.
Locations of the Open Air Crosses
These crosses are found inKottekkad,Enammavu Mapranam( Holy Cross Church Mapranam under the Thrissur diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church),Puthenchira( St.Mary’s Forane Church under the Irinjalakuda diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church)Parappukkara(under the Irinjalakuda diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church),Veliyanad(under the Changanacherry diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church) ,Kalpparambu(under the Irinjalakuda diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church),Angamaly( Under the Eranakulam- Angamaly diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church),Kanjoor( Saint Marys Church ),Malayattoor(Under the Eranakulam- Angamaly diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church),UdayanperurUnder the Eranakulam- Angamaly diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church),Kuravilangad( Under the Palai diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church),Uzhavoor( Under the Kottayam ( Southist) diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church),Chungam( Under the Kottayam ( Southist) diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church),Muttuchira( Under the Palai diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church),Kudamaloor( Under the Palai diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church),Niranam(St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church under the Niranam diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church) ,Kothamangalam,Chengannur,Thumpamon,Chathannurand many other places.
About the Open Air Crosses
These crosses are very large, freestanding crosses which are found outside the churches. They are usually aligned to the west end of the church. On festival days and during processional days, people process around these crosses. People also burn coconut oil as an act of offering and reverence at the base of these large crosses on their pedestals.
The plinths represent lotus petals and lotus flowers as the cross is sitting on top of a lotus flower. There is a square base, itâ€™s a circle on a square with a cross on top. The circle as the lotus flower represents the divine, heavenly aspect, on the square which represents the earth.
There are depictions of the holy family. There are imags of Mary and the Christ Child, also of the Crucifixion in these crosses. There is a variety of iconographic motifs including fish, various animals, elephants. The elephants are very much part of an Indian context.
There are even archwayâ€™s in older churches which shows two elephants either side of the cross on a plinth. The elephants are coming to venerate the cross. And on the other side of the archway, there are peacocks sitting either side of the cross. This represents the indigenisation of stone crossesand Christian symbols in India.
2.3 Other Persian Crosses
There are other ancient Persian Crosses found in Churches. The Author doesn’t know about studies of these crosses.
Kottakkavu ( Parur) Cross
TheSaint Thomas Kottakkavu Churchat North Paravur under the diocese of Ernakulam-Ankamaly of the Syro Malabar Church has an ancient Persian Cross.
This cross is engraved on granite stone believed to be done by Mar Sabore and Mar Prothe about 880 AD . This is now preserved in the chapel in front of the church.
There is another Persiancross atSt. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Niranam under the Niranam diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.
There was an ancient cross found from Nilakkal. A part of which is said to be at Kuvappalli. This came from the ruined Christian settlement of Nilakkal. It is said that it has an inscription in Roman or Greek capitals, but that is so illegible to read. The other portion of this cross left at Nilakkal was not found by Fr. Hosten when he visited the site again in 1924.6
1.Vazhuthanapally-”Archaeology of Mar Sliba”
2.Thadikkatt-” The Cross in different traditions”
3.A E Burnell- â€ Some Pahlavi Inscriptions in South Indiaâ€- Kottayam Cross
4.A Mingana-â€ The Early spread of Christianity in Indiaâ€- Muttuchira Cross
5.ASR Ayyar-â€ A New Persian Cross from Travancoreâ€- Kadamattam Cross
6.T K Joseph-â€ Another Persian Cross in Travancoreâ€- Kadamattam Cross
7.T K Joseph-â€ A Pahlavi inscription around the Crossâ€- Kadamattam Cross
8. Varghese Pathikulangara-”Mar Toma Sliba, Saint Thomas Cross, Short Explanation, historical and Symbolical
9.Varghese Pathikulangara- “St.Thomas Cross – The Flowery Cross”
10.E W West-â€ Inscription around Crosses in South Indiaâ€
11.CPT Winckworth-â€ A New Interpretation of the Pahlavi Cross- Inscriptions of South Indiaâ€
12.George Menachery- â€œAncient Kerala Christian Artâ€
13.Geo Thadikkatt-” Liturgical Identity of Mar Toma Nazrani Church”
14. Ken Parry -â€œStone crosses of Keralaâ€
15.George Menachery- “Rock Crosses of Keralaâ€
16.Gerd Gropp-”Die Pahlavi Inschrift auf dem Thomaskreuz in Madras”- Mylapore Cross
17.Herman D’Souza- ” In the steps of Saint Thomas”
1. Kothanalloor cross at St.Gervasis and Prothasis Church, Kothanalloor under the diocese of Palai of the Syro Malabar Church. Many thanks to Thomas Antony for the picture.
2. Open Air Cross at St.Marys Church, Kuravilangadu, under the diocese of Palai of the Syro Malabar Church.
3. Persian Cross at Saint Thomas Church, North Paravur under the diocese of Ernakulam-Ankamaly of the Syro Malabar Church.
4. Persian Cross at St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Niranam under the Niranam diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.
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