Church portals open for Ayyappa devotees

It has for long been a custom for the St Andrew’s Church at Arthunkal in Alappuzha District to receive the pilgrims, who take out their string of beads worn as part of the ritual during the period of vow preceding the trip to the hill shrine by paying respect before the idol of Saint Sebasitan. During November-January, when the Mandala and Makaravilakku season of the Sabarimala temple takes place, devotees visit the sea-side church.

Traditionally, the pilgrims wear a 'mala' (string of beads) to mark their devotion and period 'vrata’ or renunciation of wordly pleasures. Many visit the church to take out the 'mala' marking the end of their ‘vrata’. After removing the ‘mala’, the devotees take a bath in a tank in the church premises or a dip in the sea. The church also serves meal or snacks to the pilgrims and arrange for lodging for those wishing to stay for a day or two.

Legend has it that one of the early priests of the church was a friend of Lord Ayyappa, the adopted son of the King of a small principality called Pandalam, now in Pathanamthitta District, Church Vicar Fr Pius Arattukulam said.

The visit of the pilgrims commemorates the bond between Lord Ayyappa and the priest, Fr Pius said. According to Parish records, the Church was built by the Portuguese missionaries, who came to Kerala in the 16th century following the arrival of famed explorer Vasco da Gama at Kozhikode on the Malabar coast in 1498. When the missionaries came to parts of Travancore they happened to meet a large number of St Thomas Christians.

Syrian Christians in Kerala claim they are descendants of the families converted by St Thomas the Apostle, who landed at Crangannore (now Kodungallur) in AD 52 to preach the Gospel. Though they had been following the faith for generations, they were not under the control of Vatican and its hierarchical structure till medieval period.

However, the Portuguese missionaries, mostly Jesuits, brought large sections of them under the Catholic structure and as part of the process built churches and sent priests to look after the spiritual needs of the community. As part of this process, a Jesuit priest, Manuel Texeira visited Arthunkal in 1579 AD and appointed Fr Gasper Pius as the vicar of the community in 1581. Members of the community, well-integrated in the social fabric, gained permission from Muthedath Raja to build a church with thatched roof and wood.
"It is said that the Raja visited the church on completion of the construction and asked the priest to retain it always as a House of God. Since then, people professing all faiths used to visit the church to pay homage to St. Andrew, the patron of the parish.

"These historical facts and legends associated with the church show that religious harmony of the place could be traced back to centuries," Fr Pius said.

After the death of the first priest, a new vicar named Fr Jacomo Fenicio, also a Jesuit, became the vicar of the church in 1584, to whom the legend linking Sabarimala and Arthunkal Church has been attributed.

"He was loved greatly by the local people and they believed that he had some holy powers to heal diseases. He was called Arthunkal Veluthachan (fair-skinned father) and he installed a statue of St. Sebastian in the Church".

According to church lore, Fr Fenicio was a friend of Ayyappa. So devotees started visiting Arthunkal also after paying homage to Ayyappa. "There are records to prove that Fr Fenicio had deep interest in Hindu culture, rituals and martial arts like Kalarippayattu. He had also penned a book on those subjects in Latin. Though much of the rituals had been given up over the centuries, the spiritual bond between Sabarimala and Arthunkal Church is still preserved.

"The church authorities have not faced any objection even from the most conservative sections of the parish for giving space to the Hindu devotees. The coastal hamlet is still a shining example of religious harmony in all its meaning. There is even a practice of organising joint cultural fests by the church and nearby temples in the locality," Fr Pius said.

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