Architecture, Research, and Narrative
by Jonathan Varghese
Just off the Salem-Kochi Highway is the St. Mary’s Jacobite Syrian Church (declared as a Soonoro Cathedral as recently as 2009 and so alternatively identified as St. Mary’s Soonoro Cathedral). However, as a researcher of old Syrian Christian churches these titles wouldn’t have helped me. I needed to speak the language of the Syrian Christian Malayaliand ask for directions to the Angamaly Valiyapally. Even this wasn’t precise enough since Angamaly had two “Valiyapalli’s” (translated as Big Churches) — the St. Mary’s Jacobite Church and the St. George Syro-Malabar Basilica. I needed to be specific and so I asked for the Yakobapalli, and then, without much delay, I found myself in the South-side entrance of the St. Mary’s Jacobite Church.
This is something that stands out when one seeks out research materials on the Syriac traditions of Kerala – the seeming difficulty with gaining access to your material. One shouldn’t misunderstand this. The Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kottayam is a vast reservoir of information – of theological debates, of the many divisions of the original Syriac traditions, and much litigation around church history- but the information that I sought was very different. I was interested in those aspects of the church that are unavailable in documents, aspects that survive in the oral songs of Marghamkalli, visible and material manifestations of a form of syncretism that I saw as the essence of the Syriac traditions that evolved in the Malabar region.
On this trip, I wanted to study the narratives that are manifest within the walls of the church. When I set out to learn about the Nazrani traditions of Kerala, it wasn’t long before I realised that to study syncretism, I needed to study the church, its structure; that the very being of the church is my library.
I couldn’t enter my ‘library’ without the consent of the ‘librarian’ and I was yet to discover whether, here in Angamaly, that person was the vicar, the acolyte or a trustee of the church. I was told the vicar would take a while, that the trustees were absent and that the acolyte would meet me in a while. Today, my librarian is the acolyte.
Standing at the southern entrance of the church, I decided to busy myself studying its layout.
I walked to the western entrance to encounter the familiar sight of the “kalkurisu” (stone-cross) facing a portico, which looked a little out of place in front of the facade surmounting the western entrance. Nothing remarkable there.
So I moved towards the northern entrance to find it locked but adjacent to the door is the tomb of the former Metropolitan MorKurillos Geevarghese (of Ambattu family).
As I stood, facing the tomb, my eyes caught the script of a strange language inscribed on the wall. It was Syriac, a language that shares a peculiar relationship with the Nazrani tradition.
It is at once hailed as a part of their liturgy; as the historical language that carried their faith across the oceans, but alternately, and rather ironically,is also distanced as a symptom of something alien, as a distasteful metaphor, an unhappy reminder of the very source of the split between the Jacobites and the Orthodox factions.
Procedures for entry
When I walked back to the Southern gate, the acolyte greeted me with a skeptical expression. I explained my intentions: to document and eventually digitize the murals of the church, and his apparent concerns were allayed. However just before I stepped in through the door, he asked me ‘who’ I was. A seemingly redundant question, considering I had just explained myself, but I gave myself a few seconds to decipher his real question: was I from the Orthodox faction?I smiled and assured him that I was from the Syro Malabar (Catholic) faction. He seemed satisfied and urged me on.
When you enter the St. Mary’s Jacobite Syrian Church from the southern gate, your eyes are met by the grand image of the Last Judgement.
The five-tiered structure of the painting is peopled by the easily discernable figures of the Christ of the Second Coming, the Archangels, the Bishops and the last layer, closest to the bottom, of sinners.
The structure of the church is its very own narrative. The church is designed to complement the many legends of Christian mythography.
As is characteristic of the Nazrani churches, the floor of the church was divided into two halves, the northern side and the southern side by a red carpet no wider than 3 feet that stretched from the Madbaha (Sanctuary) in the East to the main entrance in the West. During the course of the liturgy (Qurbana), the laity is not allowed to step on this stretch of the church floor – as it is believed that the ancestors of the parish assemble on that stretch during the course of the Qurbana.
For instance, the practice of women standing on the southern side and the men on the northern side was devised keeping in mind the veil (Madbahaviri) that curtained the Madbaha. During the course of the Qurbana, the Madbaha is always unveiled from the left to the right, such that it was women who witnessed the sanctuary before the men– a seeming reiteration of the episode of Christ’s resurrection and his first appearance to women. It is an aspect of the Christian myth that is revisited on every occasion of the Qurbana.
However, what caught my attention is the “thookuvilakku” (hanging lamp) suspended on a brass chain from the ceiling and hanging 3 feet from the floor of the church. It disrupted the continuity of the church’s interior narrative. It was a non-synchronous presence, an aspect borrowed from the Hindus (Nairs), a valuable materialevidence of the syncretism that shaped the rituals of the Nazrani community. The Pazhaya Suriani Palli in Chengannur, the St. Thomas Orthodox Church, Karthikapally and the St. Mary’s Church in Thiruvithamcode, to quote a few, are visible manifestations of this aspect of the Nazrani imagination. They direct our attention to an alternate narrative of social formations in the Malabar region.
The narrative continues. With my back to the Last Judgement surmounting the northern entrance, just above the southern entrance is a fantastic mural depicting Hell. Unlike the distinctly tiered structure of the previous mural, this one epitomizes the chaos that is Hell.
Hell is peopled by sinners, naked human bodies subject to torture in the hands of green scaly demons. Lucifer overlooks the chaos and at his feet is Judas Iscariot identifiable by the bag of silver coins. The bounds of hell are framed by the mouth of an inverted snake, whose eyes flank the southern entrance of the church. With the Last Judgement to my back and Hell in front of me, I turned to my left towards the sanctuary, the holy Madbaha.
So far, I occupied the nave of the church, often referred to as the hykala. A step higher than the hykala is the kestroma, separating the nave and the altar. I stepped into the kestroma. The acolyte was uneasy and he called out to tell me I shouldn’t step into the Madbaha, that the kestroma was as far as I could go. I assured him that I knew this and that I would wait for the vicar to unveil the Madbaha.
To my left was a mural of what appeared to be an indigenized version of Christ’s debates with the Pharisees. On the right, I found two distinct murals– one with the resurrected Christ visiting his disciple Thomas and another depicting the first appearance of Christ after the crucifixion. The narrative seemed incomplete here. I needed to see the Madbaha to know the full shape of the narrative.
After about an hour of the acolyte’s caution, the vicar appeared. He listened to me and without much delay unveiled the Madbaha. We seemed to agree on the significance of documenting these fading murals. The acolyte was satisfied. The Madbahaviri slowly unveiled, from the left to the right, the shape of the sanctuary.
The Madbaha was rectangular in shape and at the far end was the Masthaba (high altar) supporting a huge wooden cross flanked by several candles. The Masthaba was framed by a highly ornate woodwork painted in red and gold. The wood carvings revealed the familiar floral patterns and suggested the presence of rich mural work behind it. I could not step in, and so photography was impossible from the kestroma. The vicar stepped in and he took the shots of the murals on the three walls surrounding the masthaba.
On the eastern wall of the church (in the Madbaha) behind the Masthaba was the narrative that depicted the life of Mary. The scenes included indigenized versions of Mary visited by Gabriel, the birth of Christ, the Virgin and the Child– a narrative topography that seemed to revisit Mary’s predominant role in Christian mythography. To the left, on the northern wall of the Madbaha is a mural of Adam and Eve’s original sin (Lucifer is a scaly demon emerging from the mouth of what appears to be a hybrid of a snake and a dragon. On the southern wall of the Madbaha is a mural of the Binding of Isaac – the moment of the sacrifice is frozen and Abraham is on the verge of murdering his son.
Adjacent to this, and separated by a window, is a triptych of Christ crucified, his Resurrection and the portrait of Mar Thoma I.
This is particularly remarkable. That the Mar Thoma I/Valliya Mar Thoma who was the first native Metropolitan of the Nazrani community should be present in the mural reveals a crucial aspect of the Nazrani imagination – the very procedures of indigenization. Though remarkable, it is not exceptional. On the other hand it is a narrative symptom that can be seen in many of the ancient churches of the Nazrani community –the co-existence of the native and the alien. Even here in this church, owls, peacocks and angels coexist in harmony. Floral motifs, very similar to temple architectures flank the Madbaha.
I step down from the kestroma to the hykala. The walls of the church are empty except for the grand murals on the northern and southern walls. On the insides of the western wall are two huge floral motifs and on the ceiling, the familiar image of the Holy Spirit transfigured into a dove.
There are no saints in the Nazrani tradition. No wall mounted portraits of disciples but once in a while, on the wall is a portrait of a native Bishop or Archdeacon whose tomb is housed by the respective church.
On every occasion of the Qurbana, as the laity assemble here at St. Mary’s, the legends of Mar Thom I are revisited and a window opens to the native imagination. Ironically the church/library is open to the public but access (to the church) is quite another matter. The church as a place of worship is visited but as a site of history is never quite accessed.
Having thanked the vicar and the acolyte I asked, as parting words, for some books/manuals on the history of the church. They were sorry they said; there was nothing.
All photographs and text are by Jonathan Varghese, and cannot be reproduced elsewhere. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jonathan Varghese is affiliated with the Department English, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. This is a part of a larger research project on the murals, structure and oral sources for the history of the Nazranis
- Henceforth I will refer to them as the Nasranis/Nazranis. This is in view of the age-long quarrel between the Jacobite faction and the Orthodox faction of the Syriac traditions that manifested in Kerala. The Jacobite faction (referred to as the Yakoba) claim allegiance to the Syriac Orthodox Church in Antioch while the Orthodox faction wanted to fashion themselves into an autonomous entity in Kerala.
- This is a characteristic architectural feature of these churches. The façade is often attributed to Portuguese influence and along with the mud-tiled sloping roofs represented the hybrid aesthetics that is intrinsic to Nazrani churches.
- The Malankara church officially split in 1912 on the question of affiliation. The Jacobite Syrian faction wished to be affiliated to Antioch and the Malankara Orthodox faction wished to establish a native Metropolitan for the church. On 3rd July 2017, after many years of litigation and quarrel on these grounds, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Malankara Orthodox Church. Tensions between the factions have risen since the ruling.