The Syrian Christian Church – An Architectural OverviewAuthored by Olikara on Saturday, January 26, 2008 15:51 - 13 Comments
Architecture is that great living creative spirit which from generation to generation, from age to age, proceeds, persists, creates, according to the nature of man, and his circumstances as they change. That is really architecture.”
—Frank Lloyd Wright, In the Realm of Ideas
The Church in Kerala has always been a central source which has preserved the continuity of faith and tradition from one generation to the next, through the mists of time. This article which references sevaral sources sheds light on the architecture of the Syrian Christian Churches found across Kerala. We will also discuss the possible reasons behind the choice of those particular architectural characteristics.
The traditional Kerala form of architecture has buildings with low walls, sloping roof and projecting caves. The rooms had numerous openings by way of windows and apertures on the walls through which the houses could breathe in and the hip gables (mokappu) placed on the roofs allowed the hot air that rose up to flow out. If there were false ceilings below the roofs, the mokappu allowed the air to flow freely in and out of the air space thus allowing the roofs to breathe. This design mostly evolved from climatic considerations – for protection from excessive rain and intense solar radiation. The setting of the building in the open garden plot was again necessitated by the requirement of wind for giving comfort in the humid climate.
The natural building materials available for construction in Kerala are stones, timber, clay and palm leaves. Timber is the prime structural material abundantly available in many varieties in Kerala – from bamboo to teak. Perhaps the skilful choice of timber, accurate joinery, artful assembly and delicate carving of wood work for columns, walls and roofs frames are the unique characteristics of Kerala architecture. Clay was used in many forms – for walling, in filling the timber floors and making bricks and tiles after pugging and tempering with admixtures. Palm leaves were used effectively for thatching the roofs and for making partition walls.
Another noticeable feature of Kerala Church architecture is the preference for Laterite instead of Granite which is seen in Stone Structures across the rest of India. Granite is a strong and durable building stone; however its availability is restricted to the Northern regions of Kerala. Laterite on the other hand is the most abundant stone found as outcrops in most parts of Kerala. Soft laterite available at shallow depth can be easily cut, dressed and used as building blocks. It is a rare local stone which gets stronger and durable with exposure at atmospheric air. Laterite blocks may be bonded in mortars of shell lime, which has been the classic binding material used in traditional buildings. Lime mortar can be improved in strength and performance by admixtures of vegetable juices. Such enriched mortars were used for plastering or for serving as the base for mural painting and low relief work.
From the limitations of the materials, a mixed mode of construction was evolved in Kerala architecture. The stone work was restricted to the plinth even in importat buildings such as temples. Laterite was used for walls. The roof structure in timber was covered with palm leaf thatching for most buildings and rarely with tiles for churches. The exterior of the laterite walls were either left as such or plastered with lime mortar to serve as the base for mural painting. The sculpturing of the stone was mainly moulding in horizontal bands in the plinth portion (adhistans) whereas the carving of timber covered all elements - pillars, beams, ceiling, rafters and the supporting brackets.
The Kerala murals are paintings with vegetable dyes on wet walls in subdued shades of brown. The indigenous adoption of the available raw materials and their transformation as enduring media for architectural expression thus became the dominant feature of the Kerala style.
The evolution of the Church architecture of Kerala springs from two sources – the first from the work of Apostle St. Thomas and the Syrian Christians and second from the missionary work of European settlers. The tradition has it that St. Thomas who landed in Musiris in 52 AD had seven churches built in Kerala at Kodungallur, Chayil, Palur, Paravur, Kollam, Niranom and Kothamangalam, but none of these churches are now extant. It is possible that some of the temples were adapted as churches for services by the population who accepted Christianity then. A striking example here is the present Palur church has preserved the ‘Abhisheka Patra’ and certain Saivite symbols as the relics of the old church which is said to have been a Hindu shrine adapted for Christian worship.
Since the early Christians lived in isolation, far from the main centres of Christianity they were not aware of the church building conventions of the rest of the Christian world which was itself in a state of flux then, adapting to Pagan and Zoroastrian themes; besides the community itself has a Hindu background and Hindu temples were their models for church building.
Historical evidences suggest that the first wave of Immigrants into Kerala came from Syria in the fourth century A.D. owing to the persecution of Christians in the Persian empire. According to the narration of Byzantine monk Cosmos Indicoplestus, Kerala had many churches by 6th Century A.D.But the Syrians who had migrated to Kerala had brought with them some of the west Asian conventions in church architecture. Consequently churches evolved a distinctive style of church architecture called the 3-Tier Gabled structure.
Churches are always built to face East. The entrance to a church is from the West. There may be an entry porch (Shala) in front of the nave but when one is not provided, the entrance is throgh the large West Door. The Door is made of heavy timber and is adorned with ornamental carvings, floral brass studs, hinges and a built in lock. The door opens into the nave, or main body of the church, which is normally bare of all furniture since people kneel or stand during church service. The absence of furniture in churches could also be an influence of Hindu Tradition. Small mats are provided for the worshippers. However today, many churches have provided furniture for the seating comforts of the worshippers.
Towards the end of the nave there is sometimes a small wooden railing or low stone wall about 3 feet in height which encloses a space just before the sanctuary called the ‘katastroma’ or chancel. At the south side of the chancel, there is a stone font or basin in which infants are baptised, and when not in use, covered with a cloth. There may also be smaller atlars on either side of the chancel for occassional services and requiem masses.
The striking feature of the ‘katastroma’ is the large brass lamp hanging by brass chains from the roof. The lamp consists of a series of graded circular trays arranged in a tier suspended by chains. Each tray hold oil and along it’s circumference there are little niches in which wicks are arranged and lit. When the wicks in all trays are lit, the lamp presents the striking effect of a chandelier. This lamp is called a ‘nilavillakku’ which means a step-lamp, from the step of lights. In some churches the lamp is not hung from the roof by chains but consists of a brass stand with one or more trays to hold the wicks. The ‘nilavillakku’ is again a part of pure Hindu tradition.
Belfries were built on one side of the nave, but in smaller churches the bell was hung in an opening in the nave gable.
Frm the ‘katastroma’, three or more steps lead to the sanctuary which is joined to the nave by an arch, the walls and roof of which are higher than the rest of the church building. This is the most sacred part of the church. The tower over the chancel soared higher than the roof of the nave similar to the shikhara over the garbhagriha in a Hindu temple. The sanctuary is screened off from the nave by a curtain hung on a rod running across the arch which can be drawn by cords. The curtain is in Greek called ‘iconostasis’, a screen which conceals the altar from the worshippers except at those points in the liturgy when its doors are opened.
In the center of the sanctuary, with one or more steps leading up to it is the high altar, consisting of a built up masonry structure about six feet by two or three feet in width and four feet in height. The front of the altar facing the congregation is ornamented, either by a carved wooden frontal or draped with an embroidered silk altar cloth. On it stands a wooden cross with candlesticks on either side. No crucifixes or images are normally found in the church, except in ones following the Syrian Catholic persuasion.
The end wall behind the altar is bare, so that the entire attention of the congregation is directed to the cross which is the central feature of worship. There is a small space behind the altar between it and the end wall of the church. Here there is often a small chamber which serves as a small cupboard for the priest.
The residence of the priest and the parish hall were located on one side of the church and the cemetery was on the other side. The church and the ancillary buildings were enclosed in a massive laterite wall. There is an open cross in front of the main entrance on a granite basement in the model of balikkal, the altar stone. These crosses have four members: the base with a socket often fixed on a huge pedestal (see pic), the huge monolithic shaft with cylinder-like projections at both ends, the arm with sockets above and below, and the capital which forms the fourth arm of the cross with a cylinder arrangement at the bottom. All these crosses rise from the lotus carved at the top of the base member termed the Pookkallu. Many of these crosses have exquisite carvings and sculptures esp. on the four sides of the pedestal, and in rare cases on the shaft as the Adam, Eve, and the Serpent on the Chengannur Obelisk Cross. Like the Egyptian Obelisks the cross is a ray of the sun – Horus or Christ.
The church also has the flag mast, (the dwajastambha) in front. Like their Hindu counterparts the flag posts are often plated in Copper or Brass.
In the Orthodox Syrian church at Chengannur, Peter and Paul occupy the place of dwarapalas, the guarding deities of a Hindu shrine. Sometimes a gateway like the
Being a modest unpretentious structure, the St. Francis Church has no particular architectural merit, but it stands as a land mark of history and church architecture of India. Numerous churches has been built on the Indian soil keeping the St. Francis church as the model. When Vasco De Gama died in
In the external features the central tower or rather the Roman dome now comes at the centre of the transcept imparting a classic form of European architecture. Also on either side of the main entrance in the front, rose towers to serve as belfries. In the treatment of the exterior, typical features of European church architecture were introduced – the Gothic arches, the pilasters and buttresses, the rounded openings, the classic mouldings and stained glass windows making the whole composition completely different from the native architecture. Depending on the period of construction, one can also distinguish between the churches done in the simplicity of Gothic style as in the Palayam church, Tiruvananthapuram, and the luxury of renaissance style as in the
Kerala Architecture – Balagopal T. S .Prabhu
Indian Christianity – Prof. George Menachery
The Syrian Christians of Kerala – S.G. Pothan Pictures- 1- Thiruvithamcode Church, 2- Angamaly Mural Painting of Heaven, 3- Chandanapally
Author Nidhin Olikara can be reached on olikara at gmail dot com
Related NSC Network Articles
- What Every Nasrani Needs to Know–And Doesn’t
- The Mural tradition of Kerala Churches
- Focus III- Cheppad St. George Church
- Ancient Churches with traditional dates of foundation & Stone Crosses of Kerala- Saint Thomas Cross, Nazraney Sthambams and other Persian Crosses
- Focus I- Ramapuram twin churches, Role, History & Rituals
- Churches on demolition line – Ramapuram Twin Churches
- Some of the traditions and rituals among the Syrian Christians of Kerala
Participate – Your opinion-Leave a ResponseNSC NETWORK is a non moderated forum. All are welcome to participate in the debates. We encourage comments, critiques, questions, additional information,corrections and suggestions. We also encourage participants to provide answers/ideas to questions raised on articles or on posts/comments.Links/Videos/Pictures of value to readers are most welcome.
We request that please stay on topic, respect other people’s opinions, avoid profanity, offensive statements or anything else that might otherwise violate our policy. Please understand that we reserve the right to edit or delete posts/comments for any reason we deem appropriate. By submitting a post/comment here you grant this site a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution.
Please note that NSC Network may, in our sole discretion, reject posts/comments for any reason we deem appropriate. Please try to post on relevant discussions and we may in our discretion move discussions to relevant threads.
Get NEW Articles by e-mail / Enter your e-mail
Nasrani Syrian Christians NETWORK Snapshot
- International man of mystery >> http://sharbtho.blogspot.in/2013/05/the-georgios-mystery.html...
- Callucera is the ancient Kallissery palli were many events related to Malankara Nazranis occurred....
- Dear Brothers & Sisters,
It is very interesting to read the comments. It was very informative. I realized that ...
- Yes Mr. Thomas, interesting to hear of these politics during our 'polarization' times :)...
- Thanks Sujith for this informative post and the link to the video.
It is very interesting to know that there was an...
- Not exactly connected with the post on this page but Dr. Mar Aprem gives some interesting historical information on on...
- Dear Mathai Varghese,
There's no doubt regarding the Middle Eastern 'genetic' Connection (i wouldn't say Jewish) of...
- Dear Sunny,
You use the word 'Orientals'. It has a very wide meaning. China/India is part of the Orient, so is Jap...
- 'Cangnarpalli' is definitely Kanjirapally. The "Kanjirapally Pazhayapally" belonging to the Syro Malabar Catholic Chur...
- I read somewhere that Mar Thoma went towards 'Socotra' near Yemen from Parthia, but wind became hostile and the ship s...
- Dear Jacob,
I too shared you view, until I read the book 'The Jewish Background of the Indian People' by Abraham Be...
- It is extremely unlikely that Saint Thomas the Apostle visited Kerala in the 1st century AD, though one may argue that...
- Actually the information provided by Mr Joseph regarding the 1st, 2nd and third generation churches is true. What he m...
- Dear Sunny Allan,
The language which was used by SyroMalabar was Chaldean Syriac while that is being used by the Pu...
- I think Syriac language as language of liturgy can make our bond stronger than Malayalam. Now it is Malayalam, still t...
- The CoE has strong roots in the 'Children of Israel'. So, I will claim that the dress is Israelite juba....
- Dear George,
The Achen in the video is possibly a Jacobite or their sister church 'Patriachees'. They follow the A...
- There is no doubt as to which all churches in Malankara derive their origin from St. Thomas. These Churches can wit...
- Nazrani History and Discourse on Early Nationalism in Varthamanapusthakam
- PESAHA CELEBRATION OF NASRANIS: A SOCIO-CULTURAL ANALYSIS
- Saint Thomas Christians in the Shaping of Modern Kerala
- Ikkako Kathanar -the forgotten martyr
- MS Vatican Syriac 22 & MS Vatican Syriac 17: Syriac Manuscripts copied in South India
- Patriarchate Of India- An Appraisal Of The Evolution Of The Episcopal Hierarchy Among Thomas Christians Of Malabar
- Major Arch Bishop Alencheril Mar Giwargis II Bava-The Patriarch of Syro Malabar Church and The Gate of All India- A Discussion on The Historical Hierarchical Status of The Church of Saint Thomas Christians
- The Heathen and the Syrian – Syrian Christian Ritual and Tradition pre 1599 A.D.
- Nazrani Christians and the Social Processes of Kerala, 800-1500
- Saint Thomas Cross- A Religio Cultural Logo of Saint Thomas Christians
- “THE VARTHAMANAPPUSTHAKAM” written by Cathanar Thomman Paremmakkal
- The Story of Joseph, the Indian; A Historical Appraisal of the Affairs of St Thomas’ Christians in the Pre Portuguese period
- Champakulam Kalloorkkadu St Mary’s Church- The Hidden Pearl in Nasrani History
- “Christianity in India- a History in ecumenical perspective” by HC Perumalil and ER Hambye
- “Kerala, the Cradle of Christianity in South Asia”-a DVD Documentary on the cultural interface of religion and music- An eye opener to the Religio cultural identity of the St. Thomas Christians in Kerala.
- “The Arrival of the Portuguese in India and the Thomas Christians under Mar Jacob 1498-1552” by Dr. Mathias Mundadan
- Catalogue of ancient Nasrani Churches, their affiliations and population statistics in the background of division and attempts of Reconciliation- A review of Literature
- Sixteenth Century Churches – Churches belonging to Catholics and Syriac Orthodox ( 1818 AD-Statistics)