History & Culture

Church of antiquity

St Antony’s Forane Church, Ollur   | Photo Credit: Joseph John Keethra

St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church located at Palayur in Thrissur district is considered the earliest church in Kerala. It is claimed to have been established in 52 AD by St Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. There are many other old churches such as Thazhaekadu palli, Kokkode church, Mattom, that bear the pride of antiquity in this region. In the same district of Thrissur is located the St. Antony’s Forane Church in Ollur, which is the only church in Kerala that can be compared with the Sistine Chapel in Vatican city, for it encapsulates the flavour of indigenous and western art and architecture.

The majestic entrance to the St Antony’s Forane Church, Ollur

The majestic entrance to the St Antony’s Forane Church, Ollur   | Photo Credit: Joseph John Keethra

This church is a cornucopia of heritage as every inch of space in the church is decorated with the highest achievements of different artistes, including the painter, the sculptor, the ceramics worker, the carpenter, the goldsmith, the bronze artisan and the builders. The history of St. Antony’s Forane Church begins in 1718 when a temporary church was constructed for the religious and it was blessed on June 13, 1722 by Mar Antony Pimentel who was then Kodungallur Bishop along with Johann Ernst, famously known as Arnos Paathiri.

History also records that this church was set on fire by Tipu Sultan in 1790 during his attacks on Kerala, but only the facade got burnt.

The altar at the St Antony’s Forane Church, Ollur

The altar at the St Antony’s Forane Church, Ollur   | Photo Credit: Joseph John Keethra

The earliest pictorial documentation available of this church is that of 1904, when it was photographed by H C Q Brownrigg. A 1938 photograph of the church published in the Cochin Government Royal War Efforts Souvenir clearly displays the pomp and glory of the building. The cruciform structure of the church is covered by a three-tier gabled indigenous roof structure proclaiming the architectural excellence of the carpenters who built it to this scale and grandeur.

The seven-storey-high belfry, towering to a height of 125 ft, was one of the tallest structures of those days. Another unique feature of the church is the variety of images of angels found inside and on the church structure. There are more than 5,000 of these angels in this church, which are sculpted in fresco, mural, wood, plaster, stone, metal, ivory and other media. Their skillful disposition brings the good heavens on to earth for the religious.

Vintage photographs of the church

Vintage photographs of the church   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The dynamics of sculptural architectonics of this church is in contradiction to its purity of indigenous architectural form. The paintings in the church that covers a thousand square feet, are the pride of artists and Kerala. One is left with no doubts why Ollur’s nickname once was Chinna Roma (Little Rome), seeing the similarities in sculptural and architectural detailing found here.

Intricate artwork

A book written on the church a century ago by Kuriappan Kattookkaran reveals that there were 73 statues in the church. Even today, some of the best carved statues of Kerala are found in this church alone. There are a number of frescoes and murals both in Kerala and western styles, artefacts made of wood, metal, ivory etc. The Ollur church and the Shrine of St. Raphael the Archangel is well-known from the standpoint of its artistic and architectural excellence.

One of the most reputed possessions of the church is the tall wooden rostrum or ‘Pushpakkoodu’, which soars to a height of more than 39 ft and is adorned with sculpture and relief works of evangelists and saints as one would find in any European church. The church is also enriched with other artistic wood carvings such as the ones found on the three altars, the beams, and in the cupola.

Intricately carved pulpit at the church is a heritage artefact

Intricately carved pulpit at the church is a heritage artefact   | Photo Credit: Joseph John Keethra

The gold and silver crosses, the candlesticks, kasa and pilasa, gold censers, bronze vessels, bells, monstances, tabernacles etc. are some of the artistic works in the church made in various metals, adding to the antiquity of the church.

The church structure as we see today was built in the typical Kerala architectural style during the period 1883-1893. It is conjectured that around 1953 or so, there were modifications done to the main church by the removal of the original facade and addition of a structure to the front portion on the western side. The church also withstood the historical ‘Vimochana Samaram’ in 1959, when bullets were said to be fired at the church, as mentioned in a plaque put up at the church.

The annual festival, popularly known as Malakhayude Perunnal that started in 1837, attracts thousands of devotees to Ollur even today.

A 1938 photo of the church

A 1938 photo of the church   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The church is one of the oldest churches in Thrissur Corporation area and one of the grandest in the Trichur Archdiocese. Despite its antiquity and historical importance, there have been attempts to demolish the 120-ft long ‘Nadashala’ adorned with 24 sthampas and mukhavaram (frontal façade), another remains of Greco-Roman architecture.

Nadashala of the church proposed to be demolished

Nadashala of the church proposed to be demolished   | Photo Credit: Joseph John Keethra

The nadashala and stambhas bear testimony to the tradition of the system followed by Indian building to cater to alternate typology of buildings. In the name of reconstruction, addition and renovation, insensitive acts have already happened to the historic fabric of heritage churches in Kerala. Let St. Antony’s Forane Church not be the next one to be brutally destroyed, forgoing its historicity. Objects with such historical value should not be demolished or tampered with insensitively. Instead, they should be protected by giving due reverence and need to be conserved for posterity.

Handle with care

Recently, we witnessed a colossal fire causing irreparable damage to the iconic spire of the nearly millennium-old Notre Dame Paris while the cathedral had been undergoing intense restoration work to aid the 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece better deal with the test of time and the heavy inflow of tourists.

If these accidents can happen to globally renowned architectural masterpieces, utmost care needs to be taken while doing any kind of work on lesser-known but nonetheless beautiful pieces of our heritage.

What is missing in our society is a set of enforceable guidelines for conservation and best practices for restoration that meet international norms, charters and guidelines and, above all, common sense. There is a need for change, growth and even the adaptive reuse of structures, which is more complicated for religious buildings due to their symbolic nature.

However, everyone should understand that there is always a middle way for upkeep of such religious heritage structures that gives solution for expansion as well as by maintaining historicity and architectural values.

The tangible and intangible heritage values of such structures once lost can never be retrieved. Hence, utmost care has to be taken while planning conservation measures.

The author is a conservation architect and academic

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 4:35:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/st-antonys-forane-church-ollur-a-heritage-structure-has-to-be-preserved-for-posterity/article26874497.ece

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