Although it is not certain when exactly Christianity started, the ancient churches built around AD 510 are evidence that the religion has been practised here for years. St. Mary's Orthodox Syrian Church, also known as Kottayam Cheriapally, is one of these churches. Many stories and legends surround this church about the establishment and evolution of Christianity in Central Travancore.
The church was built in 1579 by the Portuguese mason Antony and his team of artisans from Thekumkur kingdom. It is a Baroque style of architecture, which is a blend of European and indigenous styles. However, the Portuguese had no influence on the liturgy of the church. Typically, it is intended for Syrian Christians. While visiting Cheriapally, the architecture may seem similar to that of some temples in Kerala. However, the fact remains that at that time, the method of construction of all places of worship, whether a temple or a church, was the same.
The architecture of all Syrian churches constructed during Portuguese rule is the same. These Portugese influence are also present in the Cheriapally church design. The facade of the Cheriapally is a beautiful sight that style of Portuguese architecture.
European architectural style galleries and large granite pillars, cornices and pediments make it spectacular building. Hewn stone, timber and brick are mainly used for construction of the church. The timber work is done in a unique Kerala style. The stone work is plastered with lime and sand mortar and whitewashed with lime.
The teak wood sculptures inside the ‘natakashala‘ (theatre), which is fixed on ten granite pillars similar to the granite pillars found in ancient temples at the foot of the temple, showcase the beauty of the Kerala Vastu style. In ancient times, plays were staged in Christian churches as well as in temples. Dramas based on important events in the Bible were staged in Christian churches. Theaters were used as venues for such plays. The plays were staged in the light of a chandelier hung in the middle of the seated theatre.
The Pallimeda, which is positioned at the southeast corner of the church and stands tall with its sculptured elegance, is another significant feature.
The inner part of the church consists mainly of the ‘Hykala’ and the ‘Madbaha’. The main hall for the congregation is called Hykala. The Sanctum Sanctorum, called Madbaha, is the place of holy sacrifice (Qadeesho qurbano). The main attraction of Cheriapally is its height, while the Haikala is comparatively less wide. A very delightful feature of the church is the "mondalam", or "natashala". The section's roof, which is supported by pillars and has open sides, is its most prominent feature. The church's south porch, a later addition, includes intricate sculptures on its façade. The church's façade is its most prominent visual element.
Kottayam Cheriapally is also a repository of murals. The interior of the church features a lot of mural art that highlights significant moments in the life of Jesus Christ.
The eastern side of the church wall depicts the main events in the life of the Mother of Jesus Christ. Some paintings depict the trial of Christ, the crucifixion, and the taking down of Christ from the cross. Numerous paintings are used to embellish the 99-tile ceiling. According to historians, these were painted by foreign painters. Interestingly, the clothes worn by the people in the pictures are also European in style. There are two opinions that the paintings are of European style or those of artists from Kerala. All paintings are made using only organic dyes from vegetables and flowers. Red brick was used to paint the images to get the red hue.
The Kottayam Cheriapally, located near the Uppoottikkavala junction on the Kottayam-Kumarakam route, is thus a beautiful architectural marvel which holds a repository of Christian stories.
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