“50 Stars of Christmas” : St Andrews Basillica, Arthukul Kerala – A tale of Religious Harmony!
Arthunkal St Andrew’s Basilica is one of the most sacred churches in Kerala, visited by lakhs of devotees every year. Andrew’s Basilica became the first Basilica in the diocese of Alleppey. The Basilica attracts lakhs of devotees both Christians and non-Christians every year from all parts of the State.
Arthunkal Church, located in Alappuzha (Alleppey), is one of the oldest churches built in Kerala. There are different theories regarding the name of the church. One of the most believable arguments states that there used to be a temple somewhere at the grounds where the church stands now. A ceremonial procession used to take place every year, which used to start from a particular point, which was marked by a stone. Hence, Arthunkal Church derives its name from two words – Arattu meaning procession and ‘Kallu’ meaning stone. Later on, ‘Arattukallu’ became the present day ‘Arthunkal’ Church. Today, Arthunkal Church is one of the prime pilgrimage sites of Kerala, which attracts thousands of devotees from all over the world.
Ayyappa and St Sebastian
A 16th century Catholic church built by Portuguese missionaries in a coastal hamlet near here is a model of religious harmony with a tradition of hosting Sabari pilgrims returning after worshipping Lord Ayyappa.
Pilgrims from across the state visit the St Andrew’s Church at Arthunkal here and pay their respects to the idol of Saint Sebastian between the months of November and January during the Mandala and Makaravilakku season of the Sabarimala temple. As the devotees believe that Lord Ayyappa and St Sebastian are brothers.
Legend has it that one of the early priests of the church, popularly called Arthunkal Veluthachan (fair skinned father), was a friend of Lord Ayyappa. The visit of the pilgrims commemorates the bond they shared, especially as the priest was loved by the local people who believed he had healing powers.
According to Parish records, the church was built by the Portuguese missionaries, who came to Kerala in the 16th century following the arrival of famed explorer Vasco da Gama in Kappadu, Kozhikode in 1498.
Fr Jacomo Fenicio who is supposedly the priest in the legend linking Sabarimala and the church, became vicar in 1584. It is believed that as Fr Fenicio was a friend of Lord Ayyappa, devotees began visiting Arthunkal after paying homage to him at Sabarimala.
There are records to prove that Fr Fenicio had deep interest in Hindu culture, rituals and martial arts like Kalarippayattu. He also penned a book on these subjects in Latin. Though many of these rituals have been given up over the centuries, the spiritual bond between Sabarimala and the Arthunkal Church is still intact.
Arthunkal Church’s official name is St. Andrew’s Forane Church. The building of church, which was set up by the natives, was pulled down by the Portuguese. They built the entire structure using wood and stone and then dedicated the structure to Santha Anthrose. The construction of the church was completed on 30th November 1581. Small renovations were done in the year 1584, when the church was expanded a little to accommodate more devotees. This happened during Fr. Jacoma Fenicio’s presence. He was believed to have magical powers to heal people.
The idol of St. Sebastian, which is placed in the altar, was brought from Milan (Italy) in 1647 AD. Later in the year, the Carmelite order took over the charge from the fathers of the church who used to be Jesuit. One of the major events which were witnessed by Arthunkal Church was the ordination of Chavara Kuriakose Elias. The function was conducted by Rt.Rev. Dr Stabalini, who was the Bishop of Verapoly. The event took place on November 29, 1829. Fr. Vincent Das Navis took over the charge of the church in the year 1910. This was a significant occasion, because he was the first Indian priest to take the charge of the church.
The major attraction of Arthunkal Church is the festival, which takes place every year in January. The festival is renowned as the ‘Feast of St. Sebastian’. A number of devotees irrespective of caste or religion partake in this 11-day extravaganza. Although all the eleven days are marked by celebrations, the important days of the festival are the eighth and the eleventh (last) day. This is a big celebration at Alleppey. This is because most of the neighboring population is Christians. The people of Allappuzha participate in the festival wholeheartedly.