Christian Heritage in India
By Maxwell Pereira
INTACH had been engaged in the mammoth task of identifying, documenting,
conserving the country’s art and cultural heritage –
and undertaking restoration work of selected monuments of historical
and architectural significance, is common knowledge. The focus
hitherto, was on ancient Hindu heritage, that of Jains and Buddhists,
and the more recent Muslim heritage. Nothing, however, had yet
been attempted on Christian heritage in the country; despite Christianity
in India being 2000 years old.
Heritage in India is possibly an area interest for Intach now.
We are now to witness talks and presentations on the subject by
end January 2006.
today are the 3rd largest community in India. Kerala Christians
date back to St. Thomas, one of Christ’s twelve Apostles,
who arrived here in 52 AD. Then the Portuguese after Vasco da
Gama’s opening the sea route to India in 1498 spread their
brand of Christianity alongside making money from trade. They
left a large Christian community in Goa and along the west coast.
first round of Indian converts to Christianity were generally
from the ruling classes, and subsequently and especially during
the 19th century onwards from the lower castes. However, if success
is counted in number of converts, Christianity has not been greatly
successful in India. If proselytising over five centuries could
not succeed in making Christians number more than 3% of the total
population, why the paranoiac fears for fundamentalists and others,
over this miniscule community’s suspected designs and over
their conversions, totally beats me!
there are two small states (Mizoram and Nagaland) where Christians
form a majority of the population. A quarter of the population
of Kerala and a third of Goa are also Christian. India has around
25 million Christians.
to an apocryphal book "Acts of Thomas" written around
200 AD, the Malankara church in Kerala informs how Thomas the
Apostle was brought to India by Habbanes - a merchant Ambassador
for King Gondaphores of the Indo-Parthian Kingdom of the Indus
Valley. At the wedding of King Cheraman Perumal’s daughter
(of Chera Kingdom) he meets the local Jewish community, who become
his first converts.
then leaves for Takshasila, the University City in the Indus Valley
– the capital of Hondaphorus, and establishes a church in
that region before travelling to other areas of India –
said to have been destroyed during Kushan and Moghal invasions.
On returning to Kerala, he establishes seven churches with 75
Brahmin families as teachers and over 3000 converts from Kshatriyas,
Nairs and Chettiars. Called the “St Thomas Christians”,
their church is one of the most ancient in Christendom. The original
seven churches are at Malankara, Palayur, Paravoor, Kokkamangalam,
Niranam, Chayal and Kollam.
though Thomas is credited with bringing Christianity to India,
it was the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier who spread Christian
activity in the country. He arrived in the 16th century and his
body still lies in the Bom Jesus Basilica in Goa.
the early period, Christians of Kerala modelled their churches
after Hindu temples, as is evidenced by the alleged action of
Vasco-da-Gama in entering a Kali temple at Calicut mistaking it
for a Christian church. The indigenous tradition which influenced
church architecture continued till the coming of the Portuguese
in 1498 AD.
part of their policy of Latinisation, the Portuguese then introduced
innovations in the design of church buildings. The massive arch
replaced the thick entrance door and stained glass windows were
installed to allow more ventilation. The sanctum chamber (Madubaha)
was attractively ornamented with statues of wood or clay, and
beautiful paintings on the wall. The first church to be built
in the new style, Santo Antonio (the present St. Francis church,
Cochin), provided the model for construction of more churches
della Valle, the Italian traveller who visited Mangalore in 1623
mentions three churches there. In 1526 some Franciscan priests
from Goa had entered Canara – then a domain of Krishna Deva
Raya of Vijayanagar. They established the three churches –
Rosario Cathedral at Bolar, Our Lady of Mercy at Ullal and St
Francis of Assissi at Farangipet –the current Monte Mariano.
mid 16th century, Sivappa Naik ruled as Raja of Canara at whose
hands churches suffered, only to be rebuilt again. In 1663, the
Portuguese were defeated by the Dutch in Cochin. The Dutch being
bitter anti-Catholics, Portuguese missionaries in Canara had to
retreat to Goa. Then Hyder Ali conquered the Bednore Kingdom in
1763. He sought Ferangipet’s parish priest Fr Joachim Miranda’s
prayers for his military campaigns. But Tippu Sultan suspected
the Canara Catholics of helping the British against him, and took
them into captivity to intern them at Srirangapatnam. Tippu banished
Miranda to Tellicherry and other priests exiled to Goa, to deprive
the Catholics of their spiritual leadership.
all European nations that forayed into India – including
the Dutch and the French, contributed their own brand of church
architecture, it was left to the British then to litter the length
and breadth of the Indian countryside with an exquisite tapestry
of prayer houses, chapels, churches and cathedrals in their own
style and brand of colonial architecture – the legacy of
the Imperial Raj, When the British left India in 1947 though,
the Christian churches suffered a dramatic collapse in numbers
of members, funding and support.
of heritage and heritage sites, while St Thomas’s grave
is believed to be at San Thome, Chennai…. And of St Francis
Xavier’s body in Goa, not many perhaps know about the martyred
Queen of Georgia: St Ketavan, interred within the collapsed Church
of Our Lady of Grace in Goa! Also that Vasco de Gama’s gravestone
can still be seen at St Francis Church, Kochi; and the mausoleum
of Job Charnok the founder of Kolkata at St John’s church
for that matter, that the records of Indian churches are the greatest
genealogical source to trace their ancestry for many a Briton
and European, as well as Anglo-Indian and Indian-Christian all
over the world!
words: 24.01..2006: Copy
Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You
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