GEETIKA CHANDRAHASAN travels to Kadamattam, the abode of the legendary Kathanar.
A view of the porch of the church.
MANY MONTHS ago, the monotony of Kerala's weepy serials was broken by an unlikely hero: Kadamattathu Kathanar. The soft-spoken, brown vestment-clad priest with magical powers went on to hold viewers in his thrall, besides providing fodder for spoof-artistes and parody-makers.
But where did the Rev. Fr. Paulose Kathanar live and work? Or was this man with supernatural powers who tamed demons and exorcised devils just a legend?
To unravel the Kathanar story, one would have to go to Kadamattam, a quiet town situated an hour's drive from Ernakulam. One passes by a Kathanar medical store, a Kathanar school and finally, rising out of the hot dusty scenery, the legendary Kadamattam church.
Situated atop a hillock, the church commands a stunning view of the surrounding town. A three-day church festival has just come to a close, and at the foot of the hill people were bringing down decorations strung all over.
An ancient stone inscription.
However, the ancient church has been sealed for the past seven years.
The present state of the church is a fallout of the factionalist feud in the Malankara church. Church services are held during the weekend by both factions in nearby constructions while ironically, the original Kadamattam church remains in a state of neglect. Pink and yellow posters stuck all over the premises, urging authorities to work out a solution, reflect popular frustration with the status quo.
Constructed in the sixth century, the architectural style of the front porch bears a close resemblance to the Koothambalam of Hindu temples. Embedded in the low wall surrounding the church is a stone tablet, with inscriptions dating from the time of its construction. Years ago a team from the Archaeological Survey of India, Chennai, had come to Kadamattam and made note of this. It is not sure if they were able to decipher the strange script used in it: church authorities heard no more from them.
There is even a thookkuvilakku (hanging lamp) burning over the candles lit by believers. The more widespread opinion is that the church was constructed by the patriarch of an influential Kartha family in gratitude after his daughter's illness was cured by Kathanar's guru, the Persian missionary Mar Abou. The Karthas, who were Hindus, obviously employed their distinctive style of architecture.
The legend goes that Mar Abou performed a miracle in young Paulose's house when, with just three grains, he made a pot overflow with rice. Kathanar then became his disciple. But according to legend, Kathanar never told anyone from whom he learnt the amazing magical abilities that made him revered and feared in equal measures.
Stories of his victory over evil spirits and demons are legion, and even the most rational person will find it difficult not to be awed when standing on the land where these magical deeds had supposedly taken place.
"The wooden door of the church used to have a manichitrapootu (a huge ornate lock). It is said that when the lock was opened you could hear it for miles around," says a church official, who requested anonymity as he belongs to "one of the factions." Entering the church is out of question, but one is allowed to peep through a crack in the door. In the dim light can be seen the altar and to the left, Kathanar's tombstone.
Church records bear no reference to Kathanar, claims a pamphlet on the priest compiled by a Hindu believer of the priest. But in March 1991, when laying a new marble floor for the church, his (Kathanar's) mortal remains were reportedly found. This reinforced the belief of the faithful and a huge surge of people to the church ensued.
The legendary Kadamattam church.
At the time of construction, the church was surrounded by dense forest. Not surprisingly, the walls of the church are thick and sturdy. ("Seven feet thick," confirms the official). Sculptures of hunters chasing wild animals can be seen on the sidewalls, reflecting the preoccupation of those early years.
The facade is impressive, with a figure of Mother Mary and a host of angels. Associated with this wall is one of the most enduring of Kathanar legends: once while fleeing a groups of evil spirits, the priest arrived at the church only to find the doors shut for the night. At his cry of "Mother, help me!," the doors opened miraculously to lead him in and then were shut immediately. The thwarted spirits slammed the walls with the chains with great force, forming cracks in the facade. Believers swear that the cracks can be seen clearly on the inside of the wall even today.
Kathanar had escaped from these spirits from hell through the `pathalamkinar,' a well, situated a little distance downhill. Next to the well is the Poyedam church, supposedly constructed on the site where Kathanar's house once stood. Scarifying cocks and offering liquor at the well continues even today, as scattered feathers on the grass testify. Kunjan, a believer "from a place further up North," had come to offer such a sacrifice. He has been a regular for a few years and claims that the ritual has powerful results in curing illness and keeping away evil spirits. There is no water in the well now, and one can spot a few coins at the bottom.
Understandably, there was an increase in visitors to the church after the just-concluded serial on Kathanar started. For the true believer, all the hype and hoopla surrounding the serial has made no difference.
Ask Devassiya, a 70-year-old heart patient who has been a daily visitor to the Kadamattam church for the past six months. He is barely aware of the Kathanar saga on television and in any case that has no bearing on his faith.
All believers in Kathanar are however praying for one big miracle: of the doors of their beloved church opening again.
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