Delights of a detour

With its deep historical roots and a heritage of religious harmony, Chendamangalam should be on the must-visit list of everyone who wishes to know about the history of Kerala, writes Toms Varghese

The Jewish Synagogue at Chendamangala which is protected by the ASI

Deviating from a plan might not always be a good idea. But sometimes it could lead to delightful results. My friend and I made plans to explore the historic town of Kodungalloor, in Thrissur district. But a chance conversation with another friend on the eve of our trip, led us to a different experience altogether.

Kodungallur is 30 km from Edappally and 10 km before the historic town lies a quaint little village of Chendamangalam. It is the home of Paliath Achans, the prime ministers of the erstwhile Kochi royal family. We decided to visit the palace of this legendary dynasty before heading to Kodungallur. En route to Paliam, we spotted a signboard directing us towards Kottayil Kovilakom and a Jewish Synagogue. Ever the explorers, we felt like checking it out and so we took a turn and found ourselves in the presence
of a glorious past.

Remains of the Vypeekotta Seminary built by the Portuguese, which lies adjacent to the Holy Cross Church
Remains of the Vypeekotta
Seminary built by the Portuguese, which lies adjacent to the
Holy Cross Church. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

Standing tall

Kottayil Kovilakom, roughly translated as the palace in the fort, was once under the principality of the Villarvattom. A model of religious harmony, this village has withstood the test of centuries as it houses a Sri Krishna Temple (approximately 3,000 years old according to locals), a 17th century Jewish Synagogue and cemetery, a 700-year-old church and a mosque, all under the radius of 1 km. Though there are no remnants of the palace or the fort as the Villarvattom royal family apparently went extinct in 15th century AD, the hilly area that lies next to the Periyar River still stands tall as a testament to Kerala’s proud history of being a cradle for religious harmony, a tradition which continued under the rule of the Paliath Achans.

After garnering this knowledge through a quick Google search, we took a turn in the direction of Kottayil Kovilakom. Approximately 2 km later, we reached a T-junction. While trying to decide whether to go left or right, I just looked to my left and there it was – the synagogue.

The simple monument, with its white outer walls and tiled roofs, was a sight to behold. After a few minutes, an employee of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) came to open the monument. Paying a nominal entry fee of Rs 2 each, we entered the structure (Rs 10 for camera/mobile phones). The synagogue, built in 1614 AD, was the spiritual and cultural centre of the Jewish community. Though they all migrated to Israel by 1960s, members of a few prominent Jewish families visit the shrine annually, said the ASI employee.

Inner sanctorum of Lord Krishna Temple
Inner sanctorum of Lord Krishna Temple

Just a 100 mts behind the synagogue lies another historic and culturally significant monument — the Mar Sleeba Church or the Holy Cross Church, which was built in the 16th century. The church is a pilgrimage as it has the relics of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, hence the name, as well as those of the 12 Apostles. St Francis Xavier is said to have stayed at the church premises during his visit to Kerala.

We were greeted by the church verger, Jose, who spoke about the history of the place and the monument. He also showed us the tip of two arches below the compound wall of the church.

This was an opening to a secret underground passage. Unfortunately, the doors were sealed by ASI. It is said that the passage was used by the erstwhile rulers to escape from sudden attacks. The church, which was first built as a chapel for the Vypeenkotta Seminary, has undergone several changes over the centuries. The ruins of the seminary, which was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, can be found behind the cemetery.

An experience

From there, we moved towards the Sri Krishna Temple. Though there were no boards, no one can miss the temple with its gateway adorned with saffron hued decorations. For a three millennia old temple, it looked quite new to us. But our doubts were cleared by a priest who told us that the stone-cut step to the temple door and the idol in the sanctum sanctorum dated back to 3,000 years. He said that there is a stone carving in ancient Vattezhutthu script that confirms the authenticity of the claim. The kavu (sacred space) around the temple is also an abode for rare migratory birds.
The next task ahead of us was to find the Jewish cemetery, which lay adjacent to the temple. 

Almost 20mt down, we saw a structure, which to me, seemed like a water tank. But as we took a few steps ahead, we saw a decrepit headstone among the hedges. And looking back we saw the inscriptions on the bigger structure: It was a family tomb. Since the families had left for Israel, the burial ground had turned into a ruin. It had a certain otherworldly feel to it.

Our next destination was the mosque. Though it was claimed to be centuries old like the other shrines, we were not able to garner more information.

We bid adieu to Kottayil Kovilakom with a feeling that was a mix of enlightenment, humility and pride.

We felt enlightened because we learnt about this historic place, felt humble at the knowledge acquired about the greatness of the erstwhile rulers who gave importance to religious diversity and also proud because Kerala is where the term harmony hasn’t lost its meaning entirely.

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