Chengannur is the seat of one of Kerala’s most ancient Christian Churches withstanding the ravages of time. When one would look at the gawking structure with awe and wonder, he may also feel sorry that one of our great citadels of religious amity that could stand up to some of the great cathedrals of the world has been languishing in the backyard of India’s great past.
Pazhaya (ancient or old) Suriyani Pally in Chengannur, claiming to have a history of not less than 17 centuries is a beautiful structure blending the best of Christian and Hindu temple architecture, something fast disappearing from the Kerala landscape for want of care and attention. Its gopuravathil, poomukham, kalvilakku and doors and walls adorned with carved figurines including Hindu god Hanuman holding a baton speak of a bygone era when the Christians and the Hindus lived and prospered together. Historians agree that Kerala is dotted with such landmark centres of worship modeled on Hindu architecture. Take for example, the Muslim mosque at Kathiroor, near Chokli in Kannur district. It is almost a temple. Historians feel that it was originally a temple but converted into a mosque in the wake of Hyder Ali’s or Tippu’s march over Kerala in the last quarter of the 18th century. The Pazhaya Suriyani Pally in Chengannur and the Cheriya Pally in Kottayam are unique with the same architectural splendour. And both the churches have Valiya Pally at a stone’s throw distance with the Kottayam Valiya Pally belonging to the Syrian K’nanaya faction and the Chengannur Valiya Pally belonging to the Marthoma Church.
Kottayam Cheriya Pally is a treasured possession of the Orthodox Syrian Church while the Chengannur Pazhaya Pally is co-owned by the local Orthodox Church and the local Mathoma Church, under a Trust formed over a century back, to be exact in 1878 with the right of worship shared by them on alternate Sundays.
Fiercely Independent: Suriyani Pally, shorn of written evidences of its hoary past except perhaps the words carved on the pillars of its gopuravathil, proudly recalls the stories of its tour de resistance against foreign machinations, both from the East and the West. Throughout the centuries the church proclaimed its independence as evidenced by the formation of a Trust ratified by Travancore Royal Court and later by the High Court of Kerala.
History has it that Ivanios Yuhanon, a metropolitan from Antioch, Syria, visited Malankara in 1751 and made the western ‘malika’ (double storied building) of the Pazhya Suriyani Pally (this ‘malika’ is no more there) his home. Mar Ivanios, credited with the propagation of the liturgy of Mar Yacob in Malankara, passed away in 1794 and was interred in front of the southern ‘thronos’ (alter) of the Church.
There is legend regarding Mar Ivanios’ arrival in Chengannur. When he reached Irapuzha kadavu on River Pampa by boat, his followers took him to the Church in a procession. But the Nair chiefs of the land did not allow the procession to pass in front of the local chieftain’s palace and the procession had to take a different route. When the son of the chieftain, Vanjipuzha Chief, fell ill, the royal astrologer found that the curse of a saint had fallen on the son. The Chief is said to have rushed to Mar Ivanios to tender an apology. The Metropolitan’s prayer is said to have rid the boy of his illness. In return, the Chief bestowed tax-free land and properties to the Church.
Tablets of History: Over 1200 tombs in the cemetery adjoining the Suriyani Pally, some of them belonging to eminent Christians, stand as mute witness to the bygone eras when all Christians were united in Christ but fell apart for reasons purely temporal. George Joseph, once President of the Indian National Congress and his brother renowned journalist Pothen Joseph, well known cardiologist Padmashri K.M.Cherian and former editor of Malayala Manorama Padmabhooshan K.M.Cherian were members of the church while Padmashri PM Joseph, once principal of the National Physical Education College, Gwalior, is buried here. Two tombs conspicuous by their close proximity to the Church belong to two illustrious sons of the Marthoma Church—Kottooreth Valiachan and Kottarathil Thoma Kaseesa. Kottooreth Achan was the first translator of the Syrian liturgy to Malayalam and Thoma Kaseesa with 11 others had their famous prayer meeting on 5th September 1888 at Kadavil Malika on the banks of Pamba that ultimately resulted in the renowned Maramon Convention. Church historians claim that at the height of its glory Chenannur Pazhaya Suriyani Pally was venerated as a parent church by over 100 churches of yore.
Unique Offering: The Church is famous for the Aval Nercha (offering of sweetened rice flakes) held on every Maundy Thursday, for the last four centuries. To prepare the offering, they use a unique 8-tongued coconut scrapper made out of a single log. Another ancient church to have such a rare piece of utensil is Kuravilangadu St Mary’s.
Just opposite to the Pazhaya Suriyani Pally, the giant of a structure is fast coming up—St Ignatius Cathedral of the Orthodox Church, conspicuous for its sheer size and towering spires. One would feel sad that the centuries old Suriyani Pally is left there as a lonely sentinel to be alerted by occasional visitors except for the Mar Thoma and the Orthodox followers gathering there for worship on alternate Sundays.
(First published in destination Kerala – January 2011)