Karthikapally: Art and Faith

II Architecture, Research, and Narrative

by Jonathan Varghese

Finding St. Thomas Orthodox Cathedral, Karthikappally, isn’t very difficult if you know what you are looking for. Often the church is identified with the place itself; Karthikappally, a small village in the Alappuzha district of Kerala. The church is in close proximity to the Valiyakulangara Kshethram¹ and Valiyaveedu Sreebhagavathy Kshethram and as such this geographical proximity is nothing peculiar; it is, in fact, a larger symptom of the intersectional quality of faiths in and around this region. The rhythms of the church bells, with the kshethra keerthana² diffusing, impregnating the air forming an invisible canopy of faith at dawn every day.

A view of the Church from the Northern Gates

                                 A view of the church from the northern gate

I, however, reached here on a wet summer evening, when the clouds cloaked the skies just enough to make your shirt stick to the skin and pray for respite. There were no church bells or keerthanas now. It may have been twilight but there was no way of knowing; my watch read half past six.

On that June evening as I walked in through the northern gate of the church³it took me a few minutes to grasp the shape of its structure. The place looked deceptively similar to the structure of a Kshethram, but I was certain that there were going to be a few surprises for me here. When I walked in through the gates, there were a few things I could claim to be certain of: from the archives of the Orthodox Theological Seminary I knew that before it assumed its present shape, the original building had thatched roofs, which eventually came to be replaced by mud tiles. These records also showed me that the original northern and southern walls were as high as conventional church walls.

Standing in front of the real thing though, one realizes how insufficient “records” are. I wondered how could one truly archive the vision and experience of this church.

After the addition of the poomukkam (traditional portico) with an entrance on either side of the church, the walls of the church appeared to be only a few feet high from the ground, giving the impression that the walls are supporting not a church but a magnificently elaborate roofing system.

It is an illusion, of course, engineered by the intricately tiled roofs of the northern and southern portico. In order to truly appreciate the uniqueness of the structure, we need to walk over to the (now sealed) western entrances [4] of the church.

View of the Church from the South-West

Standing there at the western corner it would be impossible not to appreciate this marvelous feat of engineering: the edges of the central roof effortlessly folding underneath the roofs of the northern and southern portico giving the western facade of the church the impression of a singularly colossal triangular arrangement. The plastered texture of the western facade is decorated with three wooden doors and a wooden balcony window placed just above the central door. There are three crucifixes plastered into its surface around the balcony window. The edges of the tiled roofs are decorated by neat wooden carvings, whose shadows add more depth to its surface. To an attentive viewer, the aesthetics of the exterior of the structure, like the western facade, would be an appropriate metaphor for the intersectional nature of the building plan.

As I walked back to the northern entrance, I noticed a flicker of light hovering around six feet above the ground, just outside the northern poomukham. As I approached it, I was surprised to see an oil wick that had survived the lazy monsoon drizzle — but more so to see the source of the oil wick: a kal vilakku[5] placed outside the northern entrance[6]. I looked for clues until I found a stone cross surmounting the vilakku. It retained the morphology of any kshethra vilakku, surviving (I thought) the many attempts at purifying Christianity; the last resilient vestiges of a faith in transition, cloistered from the outside world by a looming dampness.  This lonely lit wickpersuaded me into the yellow-lit insides of the church.

Kal vilakku in front of the Northern poomukham

kal vilakku in front of the northern poomukkam

The northern entrance (the only one open to the public that evening) lead me through the poomukkam to what appeared to be a long corridor which comprised the aisle. It is not too wide and seems to have been designed to lead us into a room, adjacent to the Madbaha[7], that houses the relics of St. Thomas. The room is only a few feet high and its ceiling is a complex network of wood carvings. On its eastern wall is a painting of St. Thomas.

At the foot of the painting, within a glass cubicle case is the relic. However, in spite of its apparent significance of the relic to the church and its legend, the most noticeable thing about the room was also its least likely object. On the southern wall of this room, on the edge where the wooden wall and roof converge was the head of a wild boar. The presence of a wood-carved wild beast in the room that held the relic of the Apostle was quite astonishing.

The room that houses the Relic with the Wild Boar in the South-East corner


Nila Vilakku

Nila vilakku

The hykala[8] of the church is organised according to a code that is recurrent in the Nasrani tradition: there is a red carpet that stretches from the Kestroma[9] to the end of the western corner of the church, that divides the floor into the northern and the southern halves. In the centre of the red carpet, equidistant from the northern and the southern walls of the building is the nila vilakku (floor oil lamp). The lamp is an apparent incongruity and like the architecture of the church, it is borrowed from Hindu traditions. With my back to the nila vilakku, I look at the now revealed [10] Madbaha. Unlike the famous St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Kottayam or the St. Mary’s Knanaya Church (Kottayam Valiyapally), the altar is bereft of any murals. The Masthaba (high altar) is defined by the characteristic gold and red wooden ornamentation and the carvings on it are as diverse as angel busts and fruits and flowers, in the centre of which, was placed a wooden crucifixion. The whole arrangement seemed to be a study in irony;  standing there in front of the altar I couldn’t comprehend why the crucifixion, the most important feature of the altar, should have looked out of place; as if it were an after-thought, an apologetic addition mitigating an unbridled artisanal imagination.

The Madbaha

The Masthaba in the Madbaha

The Masthaba in the Madbaha

If one were to bear in mind that within the visual and the spiritual aesthetic of the church, the Madbaha is conceived as the principle centre, the one in Karthikapally church is a real oddity.

One notices a dissonance, as though it withheld from complying with the rules of composition. The Madbaha did not seem to replicate the elaborate narrative potential of the rest of the church’s architecture. Looking away from it, we are struck by the complex lattice-like network of wooden beams that supports the tiled roof. At the western end, suspended between the nave and the roof is a wooden balcony which houses the old and (now) dilapidated Bishop’s quarters.

I ascend the wooden stairs in the north-western corner.  About five feet from the landing of a dimly lit square corridor there is a door sealed with the fabled manichitrathazhu.[11] The Bishop’s quarter. The whole place smelled like a wet cloth; the smell of fungus I thought. At the edge of the balcony, which covered almost a third of the nave’s aerial space, an eerie smiling wooden figurine overlooked the nave.

Six animals

Wood Carvings of Animals (4)





The most striking aspect of the balcony was its underside or the roof of the western corner of the nave. At the intersections of the wall and the wooden roof, I discovered a peculiar combination of animal wood carvings that embellished the base of the balcony’s structure —  the six animals represented included an elephant, a tiger, a bull, a horse and a house cat nursing its kitten. Wood Carvings of Animals (5)

Seen in isolation these wooden carvings seem to have no place in the interior narrative of the church. However, in the larger context of the building, these carvings, particularly their incongruous quality, typified the essence of the church’s structure. The animals, wild and domesticated, were perhaps suggestive of the indigenous imagination coming to terms with something alien; the machinations of the artisanal lineage absorbing Christianity into the shores of Alappuzha.

Wood Carvings of Animals (3)

Wood Carvings of Animals (1)


Wood Carvings of Animals (2)

The seated bishop


The Karthikapally church is most famous, I was assured, for the discovery of a seated corpse buried near its foundation on the April of 2007. All the pamphlets available in the Trustee’s office spoke of this: a corpse and all the fanfare surrounding such a serendipitous discovery. The seated position suggested that the person buried may have been a Bishop and so after special prayers, the corpse was reburied.





The Discovery of the Bishop's corpse

The oil lamp marking the Bishop’s burial site

A dead Bishop should be allowed to rest, everyone agreed. The whole thing was a miracle everyone said. A vilakku (oil lamp) placed on the floor of the southern aisle, marked the celebrated grave of this unknown Bishop. I thought it would have been interesting to know the identity of the Bishop. There was something miserable about the whole affair, I thought; anonymity in death.

The air was still humid as I walked out. I had seen many remarkable things. A church that looks like a temple, the relic of St. Thomas, a fortuitously discovered grave of an anonymous Bishop, kal vilakku, a beautiful brass nilavilakku and, the most remarkable thing about the church, and perhaps its most dubious feature, the wooden animals. As I was leaving the premises of the church I had to admit to myself that the animals of Karthikapally intrigued me.  


All photographs and text are by Jonathan Varghese, and cannot be reproduced elsewhere. (jonathan.varghese@gmail.com)

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


[1]Temple (usually Hindu) in Malayalam.

[2]Devotional songs from the premises of the temple.

[3]The gate opens into the road and is, therefore, the only way to the church premises.

[4]The Church had three doorways but every one of them except the northern entrance was sealed to the public.

[5]Oil lamps carved in stone, usually found in the premises of a Hindu temple.

[6]I subsequently noticed them in front of all the remaining entrances.

[7] The sanctuary, the Altar.

[8] The nave of the church

[9]Where the Vicar conducts the main part of the service. The Kestroma represents the link between the world of the laity (hykala) and the Sanctuary (Madbaha).

[10]The Madbaha (Altar) in the Orthodox Syrian tradition is veiled using a Madbahaviri on all occasions except during service.

[11]A complex locking mechanism that produced a characteristic metallic ring when opened. The use of the lock was often a sign of social status, in this case, it was used on the door of the Bishop’s cabin.

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