The introduction of Christianity and the history of the Christian church in Kerala, just as the history of the Kerala Jews, is buried in obscurity. According to tradition, Apostle St. Thomas introduced Christianity and established the original church in Kerala in the year 52 A.D. He is said to have arrived at Kodungallor (the flourishing port of ancient times) and founded seven churches and eight bishoprics. From the 9th through 13th centuries many more Christians came from the Middle East for trade. Christian trade guilds were very powerful; Anjuvannam and Manigramam being the two most powerful guilds. The influx western Christians continued.
Christos e espiciarias! (For Christ and for spices!) cheered the exuberant sailors of Vasco da Gama’s fleet when they anchored on the shores of Kerala, India, on May 20, 1498. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama symbolized the emergence of the colonial era as he led an expedition of four ships through uncharted waters is search of spices. It is amazing that commodities sought for their qualities to season and preserve food, would become so directly associated with the message of Jesus Christ. However, the proselytizing part was disappointingly uncalled for: there were already plenty of Christians living on Kerala coast – Syrian Christians were a well-established and flourishing community in Kerala for centuries.
Portuguese Arrives in Kochi
Two years after Vasco da Gama’s landing, on a balmy and beautiful Christmas Eve, on December 24th 1500 A.D. to be exact, Gasper da Gama hastily navigated a fleet of Portuguese ships under the command of Admiral Pedro Alvarez Cabral to the shores of Kochi. In early December of 1500 A.D., a bitter fight for spices between the Arab traders of Calicut and the newly arrived Portuguese turned the Arabian Sea into a battlefield. The Portuguese found themselves surrounded by vengeful enemies in a hostile and belligerent atmosphere. They were eagerly looking for a helping hand, a friendly land along the coast, where they could find assistance and a regular supply of spices.
The king of Kochi was waiting for an opportunity to overthrow the hegemony of Zamorin, the king of Calicut; and he welcomed the Portuguese wholeheartedly to his shores. He provided the Portuguese with native guards and allowed them sleep within the walls of his palace; considered a great honor in those days. Within nine days a treaty of peace and friendship was signed by King Unni Goda Varma Koil Tirumulpad and the admiral, and all seven ships of the Portuguese were laden with pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. In addition, the king sent fourteen boats of spices and a letter engraved on a gold leaf as gifts to the king of Portugal. This was the beginning of a long-term alliance and friendship between Portugal and Kochi that lasted over a century.
St. Francis Church – The first European Church in India
In 1503 A. D. Alfonso de Albuquerque received permission from the king of Kochi to build a port at the mouth of the river – Fort Immanuel, the first European fort in India. Within the fort they erected a church with wood and dedicated it to St Bartholomew. That was the first European Church in India. The history of this ancient church reflects the colonial struggle of European powers in India, from the 15th through 20th century.
The Church was refurbished with bricks and mortar and a tiled roof in 1516 A.D. and it was dedicated to St. Anthony. On another Christmas Eve, in 1524 A.D., during his second voyage Vasco da Gama, the legendary navigator from Lisbon, died at Kochi and was laid to rest in this church. Fourteen years later his remains were taken to Portugal. Vasco da Gama’s original gravestone is tiled into the floor of this Church. The church also houses a historic document, a register of old baptisms and marriages from 1751 to 1804. The Church remained in the order of St. Francis until the arrival of the Dutch in 1663 A.D.
The Dutch overthrew the Portuguese in late seventeenth century. The Dutch demolished all the Catholic convents and churches except the cathedral and the Church of the Franciscans which they refurbished and converted to their government church. On January 8, 1664, they celebrated a grand first service with a parade of arms to commemorate the anniversary of their entry into the city one year ago. The British captured Kochi from the Dutch in 1795. In 1804 the Dutch surrendered the church to the Anglicans. It is believed that the Anglicans changed the name of the patron saint to St. Francis. Both Portuguese and Dutch gravestones, tombstones with tales of deaths on distant shores, were let into floor and walls inside the church. The church became a protected monument in April 1923 and boundary walls were erected in 1924. From 1947 the church is owned by the Church of South India and there is regular worship on every Sunday and commemorative days. On weekdays it is open for visitors and tourists.
Santa Cruz Basilica
Not far from St. Francis Church there is another monumental house of Worship, Santa Cruz Basilica, originally built by the Portuguese. Work on the construction of this church began in1505, under the initiative of Francesco de Almeida, the first Portuguese viceroy in India. Kochi became Kerala’s first and India’s second diocese in 1558 and the church was elevated to a Cathedral by Pope Paul IV. Only the St. Francis Church and the Santa Cruz Cathedral escaped the wrath of the Dutch conquerors in 1663. In 1795 it fell into the hands of the British when they took over Kochi. The British destroyed and demolished the building. Over ninety years later in 1887 Bishop Dom Gomez Ferreira commissioned a new building at the same site. A cathedral with its intricately carved wooden panels and pulpit, and beautiful paintings on the ceiling, was rebuilt and consecrated on November 19, 1905. The Church was proclaimed a Basilica in 1984 through a special decree by Pope John Paul II. Christmas is celebrated with reverence at both St. Francis church and Santa Cruz Basilica just as in hundreds of churches all over Kerala. Christianity and Christian churches are very well established in Kerala.
Christmas in Kerala
Christmas is a religious holiday in India. Churches are decorated with candles and flowers and service is held at midnight. Traditionally at midnight Christian families of all denominations dressed in their best, often in formal clothes, go to church for the midnight mass. Christmas day is celebrated with feasting and socializing with traditional meals. On Christmas Day they often feast on delicacies like appam, palappam and mutton stew for breakfast. Along with spicy meat and chicken dishes Kerala Christmas dinner, served around noon, feature rice and several vegetable dishes. Sweets served include rose cookies and diamond cuts. The special dessert for the occasion is plum cake a moist, dark brown cake with plenty of nuts and dried fruits. Fruits and nuts are soaked in rum or brandy several days ahead for the plum cake. For the Anglo-Indian community of Fort Kochi, mostly descendants of the Portuguese, Christmas is marked by many lasting traditions inherited from Europe. Christmas Eve in an Anglo-Indian household is marked with the concata, a tradition of Portuguese origin. They send out beautifully decorated trays filled with special treats to friends and relatives. Anglo-Indian Christmas sweets are prepared with flour, eggs, cashew nuts, coconut, and sugar.
Christian communities of Kerala have maintained their revered traditions and have also included some modern ones. However, compared to the West, Christmas decorations are Spartan. Beautiful five-edged paper stars and colorful tinsel streamers hang in front of Christian homes and often from mango and coconut trees in the yard. Decorated Christmas trees are gaining popularity. The concept of gift bearing Santa Claus has also reached our shores in more recent years. One December while returning from a visit to St. Francis Church we heard loud drumbeats that traditionally accompany elephant processions at Hindu temples. As we turned around, I could not believe my eyes – a skinny Santa Claus riding on a decorated elephant, complete with a colorful parasol! Move over reindeers, Santa has discovered the elephant!