The two thousand year old Christian Church architectural tradition cannot be seen as a different entity but should be identified as a part and parcel of the ancient architectural culture of Kerala.
Every vastu monument is also a symbol. It conveys a new spiritual insight which leads us to the depths of the socio-cultural and religious life of the community. The centuries old Christian Architecture prevalent in Kerala presents a vivid picture of the socio-religious life of the Christian community.
In the Pre- Portuguese period, even though the church building design did not vary much with the Indian temples, there are many contrasting elements that is present exclusively in Christian art. Church Art and Architecture of Kerala from the commencement of the Christian presence on the coasts of Kerala, at the dawn of the Christian era have been to a greater or lesser degree influenced by those of other nations and religions as they have been influenced by Kerala’s wealth of artistic and architectural traditions Architecture, whether ancient or modern, is concerned with spaces and configuration of spaces. On that account architecture is defined an a science of spacer. Even the Universe wherein we are all suspended is also a space. These are all existential spaces. Spaces should have three dimensions, viz, length, breadth and depth if they are to exist. Two dimensional things do not or cannot exist in this Universe. Spaces exists at three levels, viz, the universal spaces that surrounds all objects of nature, our inner spaces and finally the earthly spaces which have expected from outer celestial space.
All there spaces have the innate capacity of going into experience and vibrating the experience into spatial forms. This is ‘Vastu veda’, a core science on which the whole corpus of Vastu is anchored.The rule of the Universe is that the Sun is at the central place and the Earth and the other planets move around the Sun1. Vastu Sastra appears to observe the same rules. Vastu sastra is mainly concerned with domestic architecture, but is applicable for places of worship.
Influence of Temple Architectural Tradition on the Ancient Churches
Church architecture as any other religious architecture had its humble origin and slow development. The construction of the sacred place of worship was normally conditioned by the need of the locality, the economic condition, the material availability, the technical know-how, the cultural background and the foreign contacts. During the initial stages of Christianity there was widespread persecution. Hence in the first few centuries there were no proper places of worship for the Western Christians. In Kerala though we have no evidence of persecution, we don’t have any evidence of any church building. This may be due to the
perishability of the material used. As far as foreign contact is concerned, the church had more dependence on Syria than on Western countries. Thus Syrian church would have influenced the architecture as they had supplied their liturgy, at the same time, the ancient churches very much resembled the local Hindu temples in their plan and structure.
The general plan of churches all over the world is basically the same. The temple too had the same plan. Later in Kerala a Sala comes in front, serving several purposes as the mukhamandapa of the temple. The first church structure was built in a very simple form. A rectangular hall with a thatched roof of wood and bamboo was the earliest structures. In the second stage, major change took place. The nave and the sanctum were clearly separated. Some idea of verticality was adopted from Hindu temples. The elevation of the sanctum wall was double that of the nave. The Nave was spacious and there was a verandah on either side, to protect the congregation from heat and rain. The third development was conditioned when the Christian community grew. More and more churches were built. Distance from one church to other shrank, and the faithful attended the festivals and other functions at the neighbouring churches. To accommodate the occasional community a pillared portico came in front of the nave. This architecture later developed into the mukhamandapa. So a parallel development of temple architecture and church architecture has simultaneously developed in Kerala. Another noticeable fact is that the artisans and technicians were all Hindus. Christianity was a part and parcel of the Hindu community, and the St. Thomas Christians take pride even today to trace back their Brahmin culture. So in architecture Christians followed not only the general plan but also certain minor indigenous elements.
One such element is the deepastamba of temple. It is a big granite pillar with wickholders all around. Churches also had deepastamba exactly like those of temples. Later a big granite cross with arrangement to hold oil lamps were made. The laterite or granite compound wall is a speciality of the kerala temples. The same construction is followed in many old churches.The evolution of church Architecture of Kerala developed from two sources – the first from the work of Apostle St. Thomas and the Syrian Christians and seemed from the missionary and colonial work of European settlers. It is possible that some of the temples were adapted as churches for services by the population who got converted into Christianity by St. Thomas. Since the early Christians lived in isolation, from the main centre of Christianity, they were not aware of the west; besides the community itself has Hindu background and Hindu temples were their models for church building.
Early Syriac Influence
The Christians of Persia on their migration felt odd in the prevailing mode of indigenous worship and church buildings that were totally different from what they had in Persia. As a result they could have incorporated Persian elements into Kerala worship and architecture, as in the church building traditions of West Asia along with the propogation of Syriac liturgy, the Persian architecture also creped into the mainland. The oldest existing Church building of Kerala belongs to the 8th and 9th centuries. The Syrian church would have influenced the architecture as they had supplied the liturgy. The vaulted roof seen over the altar of most at the traditional Kerala churches could have come from the churches of Syria. The church building was designed basically to accommodate the associated functions, like a space for the priest to lead and the space for the congregation. The general plan of church all over the world is the same, naturally chancel with a table (altar) and a hall for congregation (Nave), and this was certainly a Jewish influence and the general plan of all churches around the world resembles the Temple of Jerusalem.
The traditional Kerala church also follows this basic plan. The chancel or the sanctum or altar area is called the ‘Madbaha’. The main assembly hall is called ‘Hykala’ (temple..syr.).However in Kerala there is an extra porch like hall, in front, called mukha mandapam.
Kerala Church Architectural Features
1. Indigenouse churches did not have ‘ Typical church facade but looked like Hindu temples
2. Pre-Portugese Churches were very dark inside because there were no windows in the Madabaha or hykala.
3. Church had high compound walls around the premises.
4. Materials were mainly bamboo, stone and wood.
5. Had thatched roofs.
6. The interiors as well as exteriors were built of laterite and not plastered.
7. There were porches (Mukhamandapam).
8. There were no statues inside the church.
9. The floors of most churches were plastered with cowdung as was the common practice in residences.
10. There were no chairs on benches.
11. There was no permanent baptismal font
According to the narration of Byzantine monk Cosmos, Kerala had many churches by sixth century A.D. According to the inscription of the times of Stanu Ravi by ninth century, Christian communities enjoyed many privileges. They also palyed a vital role in trade and commerce. The domestic buildings of the Syrian Christians were akin to the native architecture. But original Syrians who had migrated to Kerala had brought with them some of the West Asian conventions in church architecture. Consequently churches with regular chance and began to be built and there evolved a distinct style of church architecture. The peculiar feature of this style was the ornamental gable façade at the end nave end surmounded by a cross, amenity porch (shala),in front of the nave was another feature of these early shrines.
In their external feature Syrian churches related some of the indigenous features of Hindu style. Wood carving and mural paintings, the two decorative media of temples are seen to be adopted in ancient churches also. The Portugese were the first to introduce European styles in the church architecture of Kerala followed by Dutch and British.They had introduced many innovations in the Kerala churches.
Features Common to Ancient Churches
These are vertical structures as an ornament or as a significant structure with or without inscriptions. The Buddhists were the first to use stambhas. As for the Jains it was the deepastambhas2or lamp bearing pillars.
This is another structure found in ancient churches. The base of the cross is ornamental and decorative3. In some places the base has elephants carved on it. In ancient Hindu and Christian sculpture of Kerala, the elephants influenced the skill of the sculptor more than any other animal. In some other places there are the Persian crosses and are rare ones, because the use of Persian cross was suppressed with the coming of the Portugese. Many of the crosses made out of granite, with floral bases resembles in many ways the Hindu Styles of architecture.
There are stambhas which bear the lamps which are lit at light in front of the temple . This is found in many churches too. There are considered to be saved by the Hindu and sometimes they are built in brose
Flag staff (Kodimara)
There are wooden, copper or brass structures created in front of the temples or churches to bear the flags at their topes indicating a festival or utsav. The height many vary from 30 to 40 feet most of the churches in Kerala have the flag staff which is hoisted ceremonially a week, before the principal day at the festival.
The Church Building
Many foreign writers say that the Hindu architecture at India is not so ancient and developed as a result of Buddhist architecture. So it is evident that many Buddhist elements have into temple architecture which in turn has influenced church architecture. The use of the word ‘Palli’ in malayalam for church building is a adoption from Buddhist. The place of worship for Buddhists, in Pallavi language is ‘Palli’. Hence the plan and structure of Churches in Kerala is Indians essentially. This is because of the influence of past Culture and traditions. It is better that we analyze the common parts of a Syrian Church. The Churches are simple structures built in stone and wood. The walls are made of laterite and the roofing is either tiled or thatched. The cross at the top makes it different from other buildings. Generally the churches have their entrance at the west. There will be a ‘mukhamandapa’or a porch in the front. The main door at the western side in usually ornamented with carvings and floral studs of brass. The ‘mukhamandapa’ or ‘poomukha’ at the entrance serves the purpose of a porch in a church or a temple in Kerala.
The large wooden door at the west opens to the main part at the church. At the junction between the sanctuary and the nave, is a dwarf wall or railing. The sanctuary or ‘Madbaha’ is slightly higher or raised than the nave. An arch is seen at the entrance at the sanctorum or sanctuary. This is a result at the Syriac Christian influence. There is a chancel that separates the sanctuary and the nave. There is a brass lamp hung in the Ketroma and has similarities with hung lamps in a temple. In many churches we find neck-cut baptismal fonts.
The Mukavaras of the mandapas are the very same as that of a few ancient Hindu temples of Kerala, built originally in Kerala style. This is prevalent in Kalloopara Church. This church building is perhaps the only one in the whole of Kerala which has no trace of foreign influence. The roofing is very much similar to the Cranganore Bhagavathi Temple.
Most of the ancient churches of Kerala posses Gopuras. A gopura is a decorated gateway and perhaps, a multi-storied one which is commonly seen in Hindu temples. The size and elevation of there are based on certain measurements and vastu principles which are applied in temples.
Features of Ancient Churches
Most of the Syrian Christian Churches have the same type of plans. The most essential parts are the main body or nave and the Santum Santorum or the ‘Madbaha’ the equivalent of garbagriha in Hindu temples. In the next stage of development a ‘Mukhamandapa’ or a porch was also built along with the main body and the main body because equivalent to antaralas (nalliakam) or the intermediate space. Such Churches had all the essentials of a huge templeardhamandapa in front the mahamandapa and the garbhagriha (madbhaha). The plans show the different stages of development in the plans of Church architecture.
Most Churches have got facades which serves the purpose of the gable for the roof of the interior of the churches which slopes in two directions, and giving the structure an ornamental face which conceals the tiled roof behind. Most of these types of facades have the appearance of ‘gopuras’ of the rock cut temples of the south with the pyramidal shapes even though the Christian facades are slightly Western.
The Gopuras of the rock cut temples have many carving on it in front. The Christians have achieved there carving on their facades even though laterite is not as good as granite for such purposes. The carvings on the laterrite facades are not as perfect as the carvings on the solid granite gopuras. The facade consists of carvings of saints, flowers, angels and other beautiful religious objects and animals. But many of the facades of the ancient churches are gothic in style and is a result of Portuguese architecture. Also we see Romanesque style in some Churches. The cubical wooden pillars with octagonal middle part as are very popular in Christian architecture and Hindu architecture and confirm the view that the architecture of Kerala resembles Nepal architecture.
The ancient churches in Kerala have got close resemblance to the temple architecture, at the same time has got biblical themes and theological symbols either carved or superimposed on the structures. Signs and symbols was of importance even in the early Christendom and early church. The ancient churches in Malankara has got many imageries which gives out certain messages.
The indigenous architecture of Kerala churches, which lacked facades until the coming of the Portuguese, immensely gains in richness symmetry and beauty because of the open air rock crosses with intricately carved pedestals and monolithic shafts.The motifs, message and images on these crosses and their pedestals display a remarkable degree of Indianness and Malayalee thanima or identity. Hence it is evident that
church architecture was a part and parcel of the prevalent traditional Kerala architecture and was never a different entity.
Source: Deepthi 2013