Palayoor Church of St. Thomas

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Palayoor Church of St. Thomas
Palayoor Church of St. Thomas. / Koshy Koshy, / CC BY 2.0
The story of Palayoor Church of St. Thomas is perplexed and, to be frank, deals more with emotions than facts. According to millions of Christians of India, this is one of the world’s oldest churches, standing in this place since 52 AD. This church, definitely, has a long and interesting history, but is it almost 2000 years old?

Description of Palayoor Church

Palayoor Church is an exquisite structure with somewhat unusual architecture for Europeans – it unites the planning of Renaissance style and some features of Hindu temple architecture – such as the entrance portals which to some extent resemble an entrance in mandapa.

The facade of the building is rather small – just 10 m wide, but the building is more than 60 m long.

The ornate church has a bell tower next to it and opulent interior. After all, Christians in India feel that they need to compete with Hindu shrines which are some of the world’s most ornate structures.

The interior of Palayoor Church
The interior of Palayoor Church. /
Tim Schapker, / CC BY 2.0

Around the church has been set a nice garden. Near the church are two rectangular ponds – most likely, witnesses of long gone past, when there was a Hindu temple. Next to one pond – Bottukulam – stands an enormous statue of St. Thomas but in the other pond stands an imaginary replica of an old boat – a purported boat of Saint Thomas.

Bottukulam - purported site where Saint Thomas arrived with his boat
Bottukulam – purported site where Saint Thomas arrived with his boat. /
Shahin Olakara, / CC BY-SA 3.0

Story of Saint Thomas – version of Saint Thomas Christians in India

One of the apostles of Jesus Christ – Saint Thomas – left the Levant and started to spread Christianity in South Asia. According to legends he built a church from a stranded ship in Socotra (no trace of it remains), preached in the area of present-day Pakistan and arrived in Malabar in 52 AD.

This has been mentioned in the works of Early Christians, most notably – “Acts of Thomas” from around 201 AD, written by poet Bardesanes at Edessa. The poet wrote also that Saint Thomas was a twin brother of Jesus Christ and was very similar to Christ.

Saint Thomas himself built seven churches in Malabar – now called Ezharapallikal or Seven and half Churches. Congregations of Syro-Malabar Church have several contradicting opinions which of these seven churches is the oldest one – some consider that Kottakkavu Mar Church in North Paravur or Thiruvithamcode Arappalli are the oldest ones.

Majority though agrees that the first and most important one was the church in Palayoor. Legend tells that Saint Thomas arrived here from Kottakkavu with a boat. In Palayoor in these times lived a group of Jews and local Brahmins. In the site of the present-day church was Hindu temple. Near the church are some broken relics of Hindu temple and remnants of an ancient synagogue.

According to a legend, Saint Thomas observed how Brahmins were chanting mantras and throwing water in the air with their palms. He offered them to show that his prayer and God are a lot more powerful – if he would throw the water up, it would remain in the air. He did so – and water levitated in the air indeed.

This act convinced both the Jews and Brahmins and they baptized in the nearby temple tank. Part of the Brahmins though stayed loyal to their faith, left Palayoor, naming it the “Cursed Place” (Shapa Kadu).

What happened in reality?

parts of this story might be true – after all, there are works of Early Christians mentioning this and the church is here since very long indeed. But this could be wrong as well – there is no definite proof that these seven churches are that old (these would be the world’s oldest churches!).

There are several influential Thomases in the history of Christianity in this region. The most prominent (after Saint Thomas) is one more legendary man: Thomas of Cana who led 72 families of Christians from Iran to India sometimes between the 4th and 9th century. There are stories that they met a community of local Christians. Again: all these events are legendary, without any convincing proof.

Later history of the church

Gradually the sea receded and now Palayoor is inland. Nevertheless, the local community of Christians preserved the church.

Sometimes in 1600 – 1607 there was built a new church around the old one by a Jesuit missionary James Fenichi. He had a permit of Zamorin (a ruler of Malabar coast) to build four churches. Fenichi learned that there already exist much older churches and the oldest and most influential one is in Palayoor. Nevertheless, in these times local Christians did not consider that this church was created by Saint Thomas.

Palayoor Church
Palayoor Church. /
Tim Schapker, / CC BY 2.0

Thus the missionary decided to focus on the development of a new church here. At first, the old wooden church (most likely made from teak wood) was enclosed in the new building – none dared to touch it in fear of death. Then Fenichi convinced local Christians that it is safe to remove the old church and a new one with modern (for its time) and harmonious architecture was built. The original altar in the church was left: according to legends, it was consecrated by Saint Thomas.

In the 18th century, the church was burned down during the war with Tipu Sultan. Christians rebuilt it and it stands up to this day.

In the late 20th – 21st century, local Christians more and more widely accepted the story about Saint Thomas as the builder of the church. Gradually it was accepted as undoubted truth. Even the remarks by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 that Saint Thomas has preached in western India (without mentioning South India) caused incomprehension and even indignation in the local community.

We do not know the early history of the Palayoor Church. It definitely has existed here for many centuries – but could this be the world’s oldest church in continuous use?

References

  1. Ishwar Sharan, The myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva temple, 3rd Edition. 2010, ISBN-10: 8185990913.

Palayoor Church of St. Thomas on the map

Location, GPS coordinates:10.5826 N 76.0324 E
Categories:Churches
Values:Architecture, History
Rating:2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)
Where is located?Asia, India, Kerala, Thrissur District, Palayoor town
Name in Malayalam:പാലയൂർ പള്ളി
Full name:St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Palayoor
Alternate names:Palayur St.Thomas Church, Palayur St.Cyriac Church (old name)
Year of construction:between 1600 and 1607, 52 AD (?)
Architectural style:Renaissance with South Indian influence
Branch of Christianity:Syro-Malabar Catholic Church

Video of Palayoor Church of St. Thomas


Ancilmathew, January 2018

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