Pallipuram Cross

 

Remnant of the ancient wooden cross at St. Mary’s Forane Church, Pallippuram, near Cherthala, in the Alappuzha district of Kerala, India.
Joseph J. Palackal
©2013 Christian Musicological Society of India

This is one of the two earliest available material witnesses to the presence of Christianity in India in the early Christian era, the other being the granite Cross at Chennai. This Cross originally belonged to the Christian community at Kokkamangalam, which lies on the same western bank of the Vembanad backwaters, about 12 kilometers to the south of Pallippuram. Kokkamangalam is important in the history of Indian Christianity, because it is one of theseven locations where St. Thomas the Apostle is believed to have established Christian communities. Later, the Cross reached Pallippuram, under unusual circumstances.

According to the local legend that Christians hold dearly, and transmit passionately from generation to generation, against any historical probability, the Apostle himself made this Cross and gave it to the Hindu converts to Christianity at Kokkamangalam. Those who opposed the new religion became angry, and threw the Cross into the Vembanad backwaters; it landed on the small island off the Pallippuram mainland. The Hindu women, who went to the island to cut grass for their domestic animals, inadvertently struck the Cross with a sickle; the Cross started bleeding. Afraid and confused, and not knowing the significance of the unusual artifact, they reverently carried the Cross to the main land, and entrusted it to a Christian family there. The Christians built a small thatched hut to house the Cross, about a hundred meters to the west from the bank of the backwaters. When the community grew larger, a bigger church was built, yet another five hundred meters to the west, where the present St. Mary’s Church stands. There are slight variations in the details of the story among different families, but the main theme remains the same.

Historical veracity aside, there is no other living community in India that possesses a material object which, according to them, has the spiritual significance of an umbilical cord to the Apostolic faith.

As an artwork, the equal-armed Cross, which seems to fit in a full circle, has a unique shape that makes it different from similar crosses seen in India or in other cultures around the world. The tripartite endings have two petals bending inward, without touching the petals of the adjacent arms. The middle portion of the Cross is thicker than the arms. Exposure to the tropical weather of the region has evidently taken a toll on the wood. A closer examination is required to ascertain whether the Cross is glued to the wooden frame, or if the frame and the Cross were carved from a single piece. In the absence of data from carbon dating, the antiquity of the Cross remains elusive. It is not clear if the wood is natural to the region, or if it was brought in from elsewhere.

Ironically, answers to these, and other even more crucial questions, are lying in the open, exposed to the elements, on the granite slabs that are inserted into the western wall of the Parish rectory. Centuries ago, these slabs were part of the edifice of the earlier church. They contain inscriptions in a script that is yet to be decoded. These slabs are waiting for a Jean-Francois Champollion who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs to unveil the many clues to the history of India and Christianity. Surprisingly, neither the Syro-Malabar Church, nor the Archaeology Department of the Government of India, seem to be interested.

Until the 1970s, the Cross used to be in a circular niche on the top of the reredos of the southern-side altar, which is dedicated to St. Thomas the Apostle. The niche above the statue of the Apostle (see photo) is adorned with depictions of flowers and peacocks peacock is a common motif that appears in paintings and regional folk songs about the Apostle. At present, the Cross is kept in the Parish archive, and is made available for public veneration twice a year: on the feast day of St. Thomas the Apostle (July 3), and during the festival days of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15), the Patroness of the Parish.


Photo of the Cross, courtesy: http://pallippurathamma.org
See more photos at http://palackal.org



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