His Grace Thomas Mar Thimothios Thirumeni was the Metropolitan of the Malabar Diocese in 1970. I assumed charge as the Resident Editor of Malayala Manorama, Calicut, on January 7, 1970, and the same evening I went to Chathamangalam, the headquarters of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Diocese of Malabar, to call on Thirumeni. Chathamangalam is about 18 kilometres from Calicut. Old Malabar extended from Palakkad to Kasargod.
At that time Thirumeni was in his late 40s. I had earlier visited all the newspaper offices in Calicut and by evening, I went with the then News Editor of Calicut, Thomas Jacob. Thomas Jacob is now the Editorial Director of Malayala Manorama.
I was a little surprised to note that the head of the entire Malabar Diocese lived in a small run-down house with unpolished windows and doors. The signpost of the Diocese was half tilted and the paint was peeling off. There was limited furniture in what was supposed to be “the headquarters”. Those days, the Patriarch faction and the Orthodox faction were united. Thirumeni was the Metropolitan of the united faction of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Malabar.
Despite his humble nature, I was awestruck by his commanding voice and personality. I took a quick look around and realised that he was living the life of a hermit. At that point of time, the Syrian Church did not have its own building even in Calicut city. A shed of the Manamel Family doubled up as the abode of the Syrian Church in the city.
Thirumeni had the grace and aura of an enlightened monk. At the first meeting itself, I developed a spiritual bonding with Thirumeni. He offered me and Thomas Jacob tea without milk and told us that he does not drink tea or coffee. Thirumeni observes fasting most of the time, a habit he acquired from the days he started his spiritual journey from Pathanapuram Dayara.
Just when we were about to leave, he told us that he had no telephone connection. Thirumeni said he would be grateful if I could help him get a land-line telephone connection from the Posts & Telegraph Department. There were no mobile phones those days. Apparently, Thirumeni had applied for a telephone one-and-a-half years back. I promised him to go to the P & T office in Calicut the next day itself and follow up the matter.
The Chief of the P & T Department, Calicut Circle, asked me in whose name the application was made. I said it was in the name of His Grace Thomas Mar Thimothios, Metropolitan, Malabar Diocese, Syrian Orthodox Church, Chathamangalam. The director said there was no application in the name of His Grace Thomas Mar Thimothios and gave the register to me. I went through the list and found a name which read: Miss Grace Thomas Mar Thimothios, in an application submitted a year-and-a-half ago and that too in general category. Both the director and I had a hearty laugh. The next day, Thirumeni got a land-line telephone connection at the Chathamangalam Aramana. He responded with a smile when I narrated the Miss Grace story.
Thirumeni had a second-hand, petrol guzzling Vanguard Car, which was too expensive to maintain. The Manamel Family chipped in to help convert it into a diesel car. Despite that, Thirumeni rarely used the car. He spent most of his time in prayers at the small Chapel attached to his Aramana.
Despite being the Head of the Syrian Church in Malabar, he shunned regal costumes and used simple Hawai rubber slippers. Years later, I had to prompt him to opt for a better pair of footwear.
During my ten-year stint in Calicut, I used to visit the Aramana twice a month. Thirumeni prayed in silence with me every time I visited.
Every 3 months, when he returned from his Pathanapuram trip, Thirumeni brought two bottles of ‘real golden syrup’ (made out of palm essence) and presented it to either my wife, Prema, or to my son, Jayant. He was very fond of little Jayant, who used to mischievously pull Thirumeni’s beard sitting on his lap and also playfully distract him while he was praying during his visits to our Calicut home regularly. Once, Thirumeni stopped his prayer and smiled at Jayant. That prodding did the trick. Not a scolding, but the gentle smile was a clear signal to pray and not to run around.
Thirumeni’s greatest contribution to Calicut was the Calicut Cathedral of our Church. He got a nice plot of land at Bilathikulam from a relative of Prem Nazir (film actor) at a concessional rate. The Cathedral was built at a cost of Rs70,000 in 1971. The architect was late Kanianthara Joseph Alexander, the then Town Planner of Calicut, who offered his services without remuneration.
During his morning strolls, the Founder Chief Editor of Mathrubhumi, K.P. Kesava Menon, who lived in Bilathikulam, would walk up to our Cathedral building site daily and enquire about the progress of construction of the Church building.
Menon, who had by then lost his vision, used to tell the contractor that he could visualise a grand church taking shape there with his mind’s eye.
Thirumeni roped in the then Catholicos of the Malankara Syrian Church, His Holiness Ougen Bava, to inaugurate the Cathedral.
I remember Kesava Menon, who was also present to grace the occasion, showering praises on His Grace Thomas Mar Thimothios.
The rift between the Patriarch group and the Orthodox faction had come to the fore, but the Patriarch group did not pose any trouble out of sheer respect for Thirumeni. The Patriarch group quietly moved away and built their own church near Malaparamba. The eventual split deeply pained Thirumeni, but his loyalty to the Orthodox faction remained steadfast.
A powerful and enterprising priest in Malabar those days was Mathai Nooranal Achen of Sulthan Bathery. The Bathery Church was built due to the untiring efforts of Nooranal Achen, who was also the secretary of the St. Mary’s College, Sulthan Bathery. A section of the Patriarch Group in Sulthan Bathery sought equal rights to conduct service at Nooranal Achen’s Church, where he conducted Holy Mass every Sunday without fail for two decades. This provoked Nooranal Achen, who even threatened self-immolation to dissuade the Patriarch group. Thirumeni convened many meetings in Calicut to find a way to help Nooranal Achen.
The then ministers (late) Baby John and K.M. Mani came out with a compromise formula which envisaged allowing the Patriarch faction to conduct at least two services a month. This was vociferously opposed by Nooranal Achen.
Thirumeni decided to go a satyagraha in front of the Sulthan Bathery Church in support of Nooranal Achen, a decision which shocked me. I tried to dissuade the soft-spoken Thirumeni from this, but he stuck to his decision.
The Patriarch faction later relented and built another Church in Bathery, ending the impasse.
Thirumeni had no interest in politics, but he shared a great rapport with former minister E.Chandrasekharan Nair of the CPI, mainly due to Nair’s exemplary character.
There is another interesting episode related to Thirumeni, which I am able to recollect. Kollamparambil Kurian Mathew (Mohan) invited Thirumeni to Kottayam Cheriapally to conduct his wedding with Usha, my wife Prema’s sister. The service was to start at 3 p.m but Thirumeni had not arrived by then.
Mohan’s family tried in vain to contact Devalokam Aramana to find out his whereabouts. Eruthikkal Kochachen, who was the Vice-Principal of C.M.S. College and also the Vicar of Cheriapally, promptly started the service at 3 p.m to avoid any confusion. Around 3.30 p.m., Thirumeni arrived in his Vanguard Diesel Car, put on his robes and took over the Service from Eruthikkal Kochachen. Later, Thirumeni apologised to Mohan’s family. He said after the long drive from Calicut, he had overslept at Devalokam. He never shied away from owning up a mistake, another mark of his greatness.
After I shifted to Malayala Manorama, Kottayam, in March 1980, we did not meet that frequently.
In 1995, he came all the way from Calicut to be present for the 25th wedding anniversary of Prema and me. This was touching.
During Thirumeni’s consecration as the Catholicos His Holiness Baselios Mar Thoma Didymus I at Parumala Church, when he saw me, he took a step down from the Sanctum and granted me a look which had all the warmth in the world in it.
His prayers were always with us in difficult times, helping us to choose the right path.
Everybody referred to him as Valia Bava (Grand Pontiff). Thirumeni was truly a Valia Bava, and our family friend. He understood my reluctance to be part of any Church Committee and graced me to uphold the ethical values cherished by a journalist.
The article is written by Mammen Mathew, the Chief Editor Malayala Manorama – originally published in Malayala Manorama English Edition on May 29, 2014