Saint Mary’s Church (Cheriyapaly)

Saint Mary’s Church (Cheriyapaly)

Kottayam, Kerala, India

Religious Architecture

Saint Mary’s Church at Cheriyapaly is a rare experimental case of Indo-Portuguese architecture in the interior of the State of Kerala. Situated at Kottayam, the former capital of the Raja of Thekkumkoor, known to the Portuguese as the king of pepper, the church is a testimony to the economic links, namely in the export of pepper, that the Estado da Índia maintained with this kingdom during the 16th and 17th centuries and to which it paid a heavy monetary tax every year. The date of its inauguration, 1579, is recorded in an old poem that was a part of the foundation rites of the church. The novelty and the experimental character of the church was a result of the Portuguese models brought from Europe becoming more flexible, not only being adapted to the southern Indian climate but also integrating aesthetic Indian traditions. In this assimilation, the Mannerist style of a façade in three sections, widely disseminated by the Portuguese in Goa, was widened to include another section that, in turn, had a lateral gallery that aired the interior and also protected it from the sun. The accentuated iconography of the façade of the church, which has three storeys divided by thick entablatures and is crowned in the centre by a classic pediment, includes low reliefs of angels, exotic animals and innumerable decorative elements that give it a strong Indian taste. Entrance to the interior of an open space surrounded by high walls is made through two beautiful porticos. The church stands in the middle of the space, which allows religious celebrations around the building, which has remarkable affinities with the structure of a Hindu temple. Accentuating the progressive sacralisation of the space, two porches with finely worked wooden roofs and beautiful columns, in the tradition of the mandapas of Hindu temples, were added to the façade. Worthy of mention is a curious carved ventilation grille in the roof of the southern grille that depicts a simplified representation of the main façade. The church has a single nave with a wooden ceiling and a large chancel with a stone coffered ceiling. The absence of images and the pictorial decoration is due to a very old iconoclastic tradition that forbade the use of images in the churches of Saint Thomas Christians, according to older Portuguese documentary sources. Paintings depicting biblical scenes from the end of the 16th century that are to be seen on the lateral walls of the chancel are of great interest. Following the tradition of the Kerala school of painting, some details reveal the introduction of new European decorative elements. An old parochial residence with a noble first floor and the façades open to wide verandas, inspired by the colonial house of Portuguese influence from the 16th century, can still be seen in the grounds of the church.

Helder Carita